A county fairground on the outer fringes of Tucson may seem like an inauspicious location for the launch of 2022 festival season. But tucked amidst the racetrack and horse stalls of the Pima County Fairgrounds, the beats and bass bombs of the 14th annual Gem & Jam festival put the season into motion over the weekend of Feb. 4-7.
Certainly, an early February gathering in the desert isn’t for the faint of heart. After dark, temperatures dipped into the low 30s — and on Friday night and into mid-morning on Saturday, a strong wind with a mean chill kept things interesting for all the festival attendees camping for the weekend. Multiple sleeping bags were employed by many, with some tents even running power in order to plug in space heaters.
But after two years of cancelled and postponed events, a little wind wasn’t all that daunting for attendees of the longstanding festival — which coincides with the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, and focuses on a fusion of electronic acts, jam bands and electronic-oriented bands that also jam. This year’s lineup included such jamtronic veterans STS9, psytrance icon Shpongle (who flew to Arizona from his native U.K. for the event), Dirtybird boss Claude VonStroke, funk-bass veteran Opiuo and many other underground stars and emerging acts.
On Friday night, longstanding folk act Rising Appalachia triumphed over the elements during a set that showcased the sister duo’s gorgeous instrumentals and vocals, which sounded even grander set underneath the desert stars and also a bit more dramatic amidst a whipping wind. “I can only imagine how difficult it was for them to play live instruments in 30 mile per hour winds that made an already cold desert night feel even more frigid,” Gem & Jam partner Josh Pollack tells Billboard. “But I felt as though every person in that audience, myself included, was so locked into the music that the harsh elements were barely bothersome.”
Indeed, once one started dancing you barely noticed the chill, with most bundled fans seeming to be happy just to be back in the mix at a festival. Gem & Jam’s intimate footprint (three outdoor stages, an indoor space, a row of food and craft vendors and areas for live artists and workshops) made it possible to explore every nook and corner of the site, much of which was decorated with a gem theme. With 6,000 attendees — many of whom traveled to Tucson from California, Colorado, Nevada and points beyond — this was the biggest iteration of the festival to date. Still, the vibe was homey and homespun.
“It’s super important to us that Gem & Jam retains its tight-knit feel year after year,” says festival cofounder Toby White. “I’ve personally put on both large festivals and boutique festivals, and I love how Gem & Jam sits nicely in the middle. We book major acts and bring full-scale production, but we still focus on curating an intimate, communal vibe that allows strangers to become family by the end of the weekend.”
The highlights of the weekend were many: Swedish bass maestro Liquid Stranger delivered a wompy-yet-sophisticated set full of low end on Friday from the mainstage. On Saturday, Bay Area trio Dirtwire played a sublime show that mixed a barrage of instruments from around the world with electronic elements. The trio invited Larry Yazzie of the Meskwaki nation to open and close the show with traditional Indigenous dancing, which was a special, resonant visual to take in as the group ended their set with a heavy, mightily loud cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
Later in that same indoor space, Claude VonStroke dropped a set that fell into his signature sweet spot of dark (but not too dark) and also sort of deliciously weird house, techno and tech house that included cuts like his 2019 Green Velvet collab “Jolean.” Attendees, both masked and unmasked, stripped off layers on the dancefloor as the heat rose in the room throughout the set.
Earlier in the night, Portland live electronic trio Yak Attack also delivered a sprawling, at points ecstatic and altogether excellent set on the Quartz stage, where they fused elements of jazz, electronic, looping and live instruments. Around sunset that same night, it was also possible to take part in a drum circle that incorporated a group sing along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.” Other offerings throughout the weekend included workshops on ayurveda, awakening your chakras, FDA approved clinical trials on psilocybin and shamanic journeying.
With such programming, Gem & Jam exists in a space that feels fairly far from that of the corporate mega-festivals — EDC Las Vegas, Coachella, Life Is Beautiful, etc. — which dominate the region. While expertly organized and thoroughly safe — “The Sheriff’s Department actually shares a space onsite at the Pima County Fairgrounds, but they are strictly there for when we need them. They know who our crowd is, and know that it’s pretty low-key for the most part, so they stay out of the way unless we call them,” says White.
The festival had a freewheeling vibe that can be harder to come by at bigger events, but which does have some overlap with these shows. “Some of the programing, at least with EDC and Coachella too — our worlds are starting to cross over more, with the programing they’re doing,” says Pollack. ” From the beginning we’ve been starting from a very underground space, and then building a bit more towards mainstream, while still keeping a lot of these important underground aesthetics. The larger festivals are starting from more of a mainstream place and trying to integrate more underground things.”
“We have sort of fallen into a special place where we fit the mold of a transformational festival, but that’s not our goal,” adds White. “We like to offer our attendees something different from what other events are programming, and we strive to remain unique in the sea of festivals popping up. We aren’t trying to be anything in particular, we just roll with what feels good to us.”
During its 14th year, from the coldest moments to when temperatures rose into the high 60s on Sunday — when STS9 closed the mainstage with a triumphant set that ended promptly at midnight — the atmosphere at Gem & Jam indeed felt good, hopeful and refreshing. Escorting many attendees back into the festival scene after a two year absence and launching a festival season that looks as though it will proceed as normal amidst the ongoing pandemic, there was much to celebrate on the outer fringes of Tucson over the weekend.