Cultivating a Community at Tucson’s Gem and Jam Festival

Written by Michael Talavera

Photo by Sage Thomas

At a Glance

Compelled by a Wild West sense of adventure and murmurs of something truly special happening, the decision to journey into the Sonoran Desert was one of mystery and spontaneity. We were completely unaware to the treasure trove that awaited us in Tucson. On Feb. 2nd-5th, for its biggest installment yet, the 11th annual Gem and Jam Festival cultivated a truly unique gathering worthy of mention amongst the highest-esteemed transformative festivals. Driven by the efforts of countless visionary artists, musicians, and community leaders, an impeccable and inspiring platform of creativity was formed that weekend. The invaluable atmosphere left all attendees with a level of inspiration and grounding one might only find browsing the precious stones and artifacts found at the corresponding Tucson Gem and Mineral Showcase.

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Music genre: Funk, Live Electronica, Jam, Experimental Bass

Camping: Yes! This is the first year that Gem and Jam officially became a camping festival. Many camping options were arranged on a gravel lot just outside the main festival grounds.

Capacity: Small

Crowd type:  An eclectic mix of heady art aficionados, jam band enthusiasts, mineral hunters, and visionary artists of all types flawlessly uniting in harmonious celebration.

Water stations: Yes

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For the first-timers

Since it was our first visit to the deserts and festivals of AZ, we were relieved and grateful to discover well-organized campgrounds and plentiful infrastructure at the new (hopefully permanent) location, Pima County Fairgrounds. Located just 15 minutes southeast of Tucson, the huge layout features plenty of options for campers such as onsite showers and bathrooms, all of which proved pleasantly hospitable throughout the weekend.

For air travelers, flying into Tucson is the most convenient. However, many unofficial shuttles delivering attendees from Phoenix make saving money on flights easy. Anyone driving from out of state should be well-aware of the border checkpoints near Mexico (specifically I-10 just north of El Paso). Delays were not uncommon.

Hotels are competitive in consideration of the massive Tucson Gem and Mineral Showcase happening simultaneously. Airbnb’s have limited availability and are typically about 15-25 minutes from the venue. Camping is highly suggested and will be genuinely rewarded through a deeper involvement at the festival. This being the first year Gem and Jam evolved to camping, we were grateful for the magical atmosphere and friends made as we immersed ourselves fully in coexistence. Choose from the walk-in, car camping, RV camping, or the “Ready Set Camp” option which provides fully furnished Shiftpods for the lightest travelers.

Pro-tip: The Sonoran Desert in February was pleasantly warm in the day, but can drop up to 40 degrees at night. Come prepared and plan ahead when heading into the festival.

(Photo by Sage Thomas)

Stage layout

Being its 11th year running and biggest yet, festival organizers have amassed an impressive collection of imaginative stage structures and utilized them fully at the many stages. Installments that were used in previous years for mainstage design easily transitioned into magnificent centerpieces for the now smaller stages. Four stages presented the bulk of the music performances, while two smaller spaces hosted the many workshops.

The Emerald and Tanzanite main stages hosted headliners one at a time to provide a seamless and intimate experience. Jason ‘Bild’ Smith showcased two jaw-dropping, 12-foot-tall, color-changing, acrylic glass, crystalline installations on each side of the Emerald stage, which were then activated throughout the many performances in unison with the lighting directors and live visual artists to create a truly awe-inspiring spectacle.

As we followed the music from one main stage to the other, we were constantly treated by the large art gallery, organized by Tribe 13 and The Welch Brothers, which provided a space for many talented visionary painters to present finished artwork as well as live paint for eager spectators.

Art by the Welch Brothers (Photo by Michael Talavera)

Aptly named for its massive clear quartz matrixes provided by the Arkansas crystal vendors, the Quartz stage hosted smaller artists and was positioned in the middle of ‘Central Park’, a space where one could engage in countless workshops and art installations. Many festival goers found themselves caught here in blissful conversation with a stranger or attempting to balance on an indo board for the first time.

Crystal matrixes at the Quartz Stage (Photo by Sage Thomas)

The Onyx stage, with its undeniable underground warehouse vibes, hosted the late-night retreats and was adorned with its own crystalline structures, an intricate wooden design, and an LED screen. The parties hosted here went from 1-5am and progressed from the Love House sounds of Desert Hearts artists on Friday night to experimental bass music on Saturday to a final night of funk and Dead covers on Sunday.

Desert Hearts Late Night (Photo by Sage Thomas)

The Amethyst Stage and the Fluorite Dome were located at the corner of Central Park and hosted fulfilling workshops and discussions ranging from beginner, acro yoga to a group discussion on entheogens led by Shelby Bertsch.

Musical highlights

  • EOTO ringing in the String Cheese Incident filled weekend for early arrival campers with a bass-heavy dance sesh that taught us exactly how to combat the inevitable evening chill.
  • The magnificent HÄANA, as the first performer on mainstage Friday and enhanced by the brilliant sunset taking place, captured our attention and hearts through her combination of elegant violin instrumentation, bass-heavy electronic sounds, and Icelandic folk-inspired lyrics that left the crowd in a dreamlike state of euphoria.
  • Opiuo stopping several times throughout his set to impart sentimental words of encouragement and gratitude to the crowd before dropping funky dance party anthems, “Sneakers” and “Quack Fat”.
  • The succession of Opiuo into G Jones into Lotus into Gramatik was the perfect storm leading to the culmination of the weekend’s exponentially-building energy. There was a moment of impeccable chaos as we were all drawn in by Gramatik’s creative sampling of Justice’s song, “We Are Your Friends”.

The magnificent HÄANA (Photo by Sage Thomas)

Things to do

  • Participate in one of the many discussions and presentations in the Fluorite Dome, ranging from tea and crystal healing to spiritual nutrition and fasting.
  • Lose track of time in the Art Gallery separating the two main stages.
  • Visit the Tucson Gem and Mineral Showcase. Described to me as ‘the South by SouthWest of Gem and Minerals’ and drawing upwards of 55,000 people, the showcase is a must-see international marketplace of crystals, fossils, and artifacts which are enjoyed easily thanks to the free shuttle offering daily rides into town.
  • Bring a partner and join Meera Hoffman for a guided class on Sacred Thai Massage that will ‘restore balance to the body and mind, while bringing greater awareness and experience of inner stillness.’
  • All the heady sports fans can catch all the Super Bowl Sunday action at the art gallery and participate in the celebration of their teams’ victory… or lack thereof.

Superbowl @ Gem & Jam (Photo by Michael Talavera)

Story corner

After a few days of festivities, the festival had built some serious momentum and our connection was strong. And, while the energy climaxed on Saturday night with high-energy headliners, the performance that defined the vibe of the weekend in one beautiful set was the very last one. Accentuated by Johnathan Singer live visuals, Steve Kimock, Jeff Chimenti (Dead and Co.), members of Jerry Garcia Band, and members of The Motet revitalized Grateful Dead classics and led one last warehouse dance party that ended in group hugs and quiet reflections worthy of the moving weekend we were so lucky to be a part of.

Dead & Co. (Photo by Michael Talavera)

In my eyes, there are two types of festivals. Festivals that we pay money to attend or be entertained by, and festivals that we pay money to participate in. This is the fundamental, underlying difference in festival culture that, in my opinion, is the most overlooked and underappreciated aspect of any festival. Creative participation and activation are at the core of Gem and Jam ethos. It is a festival fueled by the creative passions and hard work of many. Strong leaders in the art and music community can be seen everywhere at any time of the day building, painting, curating, practicing, vending, dancing, and engaging. Roving artists showcase their wares on tricked out Radio Flyer wagons. A live painter takes a moment’s break to offer barbershop services on the fly. Speakers excitedly share their latest discoveries with an eager audience. The audience then surprises the speaker with insightful questions at the end of the presentation; a telltale sign of a meaningful exchange. This is what a genuine platform for creativity and connection looks like and it is something that can only be built organically, together, by all performers, attendees, and festival organizers. All festivals have pieces of the puzzle, but very few culminate with the intensity that occurred at Gem and Jam. This culture, and what blossoms from this culture, is the deeper meaning behind what makes a festival truly ‘transformative’. Infinite gratitude for everyone involved. Until next year Tucson!

“Phoenix Love Net” Art Collaboration (Photo by Sage Thomas)

Check out the rest of the Gem & Jam 2017 album HERE.

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