em & Jam's 13th annual gathering was the perfect oasis from the humdrum routine of capitalism and the restrictive nature of our post-modern society. This intimate festival was nestled in an Arizona valley surrounded by gargantuan mountains 20 miles south of Tucson at the Pima County Fairgrounds. Although the rapid torrent of daily life usually sweeps us away, events like these remind us we are not just mindless drones that sit upon swiveling chairs as pulsating screens lull us into a comatose sleep. We are living beings; and the fact that we need a festival to remind us of this is comical but also borders on the disturbing. The folks at Gem and Jam seem to have realized the situation that all of us are in while also understanding the intense regenerative power that festivals have been spreading since Woodstock, synthesizing it to the perfect degree of purity. We are in 2020 now and Gem & Jam is one of those future gatherings we saw in the movies where the people dance to odd music and seem to be overcome with happiness. Gem & Jam is a festival that brings joy.
One aspect of Gem & Jam’s obvious connection with the vast legacy of festival culture was its expert musical curation this year. Their planning was very conscious considering they slotted most of the heavier artists like Tipper, Mersiv, Buku, Thriftworks, SoDown, or The Floozies on the first two days while the third day seemed to calmly initiate the transition to everyone’s normal lives with some soothing instrumental music. The last day of Gem & Jam included sets from Billy Strings, Twiddle, Kitchen Dwellers, The TH3 Supergroup featuring members of the String Cheese Incident playing with Matt Hill and a six hour Grateful Dead tribute that brought together Eric Krasno formerly of Lettuce, Mihali Savoulidis of Twiddle, Reed Mathis who has worked with members of the Dead, Todd Stoops and the drummer boys from String Cheese. Despite this courteous style of planning there were still a great amount of genre variance throughout the weekend with sets from Dirtwire, Cycles, Tenth Mountain Division, and Eminence Ensemble on the first two days and performances from Bluetech, Desert Dwellers, Supertask, Michal Menert, Megan Hamilton and more on the last day. Finally this expert planning was evident through the excellent scheduling that offered little to no conflicting sets which made for a calm weekend without the FOMO.
Another aspect of Gem & Jam’s expert curation was the venue choice and the decoration thereof. The 2020 edition of G & J took place at the Pima County Fairgrounds which provided an enjoyable balance of wilderness and civilization. The campgrounds felt like the boonies with the mountains in the distance and the great amount of walking distance within the site but a five to ten minute walk totally changed the environment. Inside the fairgrounds there were plenty of actual washrooms, water fountains, plenty of shelter if it were to rain, a wide variety of food selection and large rooms that were make-shifted for indoor stages. There were four stages in total, three of them being outside and one being a massive warehouse, where all the late night sets took place to escape the cold. Although the venue had some structural advantages, the actual wow factor stemmed from the uplifting decorations. Every perspective revealed another hanging ornament or art installation. On Saturday night Tribe 13 hosted a massive gallery space in front of the main stage that allowed awestruck festival attendees to wander amidst the paintings. There was also plenty of space for live painters, elaborate displays of massive stones and alternative spaces like the Healing Zone which offered a calm getaway from the festivities if needed.
Gem & Jam’s high degree of planning and consideration of the attendee speaks to the experience of their production team. While providing a sense of modern comfort they also point to the depths of artistic expression that has fueled the festival culture since the 70s. It is no coincidence that they decided to end their gathering with a massive tribute to a band that catapulted the counterculture to a mainstream possibility through small events like Kesey and O’ Leary’s Acid Tests. This “counterculture” provided an alternative framework for interactions in the capitalist system that infused empathy, kindness and non-judgmental attitudes with collaborative teamwork focused on socio-political change. These festivals are the deep breath that we have been looking for in our working lives, these gatherings restore our human spirit. Gem & Jam separates itself from other festivals by evolving this “counterculture” to the next level by encouraging a wondrous fascination with the natural world by making gems and stones a primary portion of the experience. They also encourage safe-experimentation with medicines and hallucinogens by providing Dance Safe with a booth on the dance floor. This sort of quality production combined with the greatness of the outdoors makes for a weekend that seems like an ancient ritual that humans have been partaking in for millennia. A holy ceremony that brings the community together, circulates wealth, and leaves the attendees with a bright eye to see the world. Cheers to a wonderful weekend at Gem & Jam. See you out there next year.