Josey Rose Duncan

The Write Site

Music festival review: Gemmin’ with our jams out

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We were somewhere around Tucson on the edge of the desert when the gems began to take hold—or maybe it was the jams. I remember saying something like, “are there always this many car accidents in Arizona or is it the moldavite?” Suddenly, the black sky filled with bass and a voice—or was it many voices?—screamed, “whooooooo!”

Then it was quiet again. Actually, it wasn’t quiet at all: music and wild laughter beckoned my attorney and I past yee-haw roping cowboy murals, paint-chipped and sun-faded, to the dusty Slaughterhouse gates. “What’s that about moldavite?”  She asked, staring at the green-purple-blue blinking lights, her eyes covered with heart-shaped sunglasses, “I hear this place is haunted.” “Never mind,” I said. “Let’s see who’s on the Quartz stage.”

It was Valentine’s weekend and my attorney and I were in search of the American Dream—our dancey, jammy, gemmy version of it, anyway—at Tucson’s 10th-annual Gem and Jam Festival. While it was my first rodeo (Wild West-pun intended), my attorney worked several pre-law school winters as a teen-aged, Dead-following hippie slanging jewelry at the gem shows, and was eager to return. We spent our first two days in Tucson anthropomorphizing Carnegiea gigantea and searching for Oregon Sunstone and now, we wanted to gem out with our jams out—or was it jam out with our gems out?

At breakfast at the WaHo across from our hotel that morning, a long-haired young man, overhearing we were headed to the festival, spun around in his booth to inform us the venue had once been a real slaughterhouse. “I thought that was a weird name,” I muttered to my attorney. “It’s haunted,” he added, un-concerned.

“So are the ghosts cows or people?” I asked as we sauntered past a glowing flower of life sculpture. “I assume cows,” she said. “As your attorney, I advise we explore that sacred-looking space behind the giant metal head.”

Notes from a jaded (gem-pun intended) Californian searching for her (gemmy, jammy) American Dream: Gem and Jam was an adorable festival—small, but in a cute way (d’aww). Every haunted corner was alive: Aerialists spun across the warm, dense, night; vendors hawked watermelon tourmaline, aquamarine (or as my attorney called it, “Waka Flaka aqua”), and opal; smiling artists conjured psychedelic dreams from paint and colored pencil. I’ve got nothing but love for my (home) Golden State and my (golden) City by the Bay, but I didn’t expect the usual wiggly, wobbly crowd collisions to inspire so many “sorrys.” “Everyone here is so polite,” I gazed wide-eyed at my attorney, “I’m not used to it.” “Maybe,” she offered conspiratorially, “it’s the moldavite.”

“Do you think they hung the carcasses in here?” I shouted at my attorney. We’d found our way to the indoor Onyx stage where Macro Dot played crunchy, deep, glitch-step that kept us warm. “What?” She yelled back over the bass. “The carcasses!” I yelled louder, “do you think this room was for carcasses!” “Maybe it was refrigerated?” My attorney shrugged and returned to dancing.

We arrived at the Solar and Galactic after-parties around 3am, dusty and dehydrated. Eliot Lipp was finishing up his set in Solar. We danced to Gladkill and Templo until dawn threatened, and ended our early morning in Galactic gettin’ funky to Safi’s Lab—feet weary, hearts full. “So polite,” I mouthed, sipping coconut water and surrounded by sunny faces as Earth’s favorite gaseous star peeked, just slightly, above the horizon.

Let’s call this an inter-article footnote (of sorts) and discuss visual art. Because although this is a music blog and Gem and Jam calls itself a music festival, the sounds vibrate off the paintings and drawings and glass sculptures, ricochet off morphing video visuals. “Computers have changed everything,” my attorney was in awe. She was right, as always, but I wasn’t sure this was the best time to contemplate technology’s evolution and its influence on the arts. The festival was one, big symbiotic dance, which allowed us, the un-defined 4th-wall co-collaborators, to crash through the middle; a soft, fiery synthesis. My attorney and I travelled to at least three alternate dimensions through the precise perspective lines of this one painting we stared at for what felt like forever.

Desert Dwellers was the sweetest welcome to the dusk hours of the festival-music; an initiation ceremony to a long night of dancing. A man painted beside us under a glowing archway as the sun set.

Two artists I was psyched to see: The Polish Ambassador, and Sango (part of Soulection’s haunted Onyx stage takeover). Which is not to detract from the whole-picture-ness of the gems and the jams and the polite festival goers and the dense, dusty sunsets and stars like scattered glitter against a glass dome. Which is not to detract from my beloved Minnesota or Beats Antique. It’s just that I’ve had Polish and Sango playlists #onrepeat in my headphones, in my brain, now for weeks.

Help us settle a bet: My attorney dreamt before the festival of bites from a violent infant. During the festival and after parties we saw two paintings of babies. Did she manifest the babies? Or was her dream a premonition?

There’s a reason we love Polish at festivals and it’s not just the jumpsuit—although we love the jumpsuit—or even his power stance. Polish’s electro-funk dance beats break millennial nostalgia down and rebuild it as something futuristic and alien; something space-time transcendent and spiritually moving. When waves crash shorelines to this heart—as the song goes—and beat by beat taken apart. I recorded two under-one-minute clips from Polish’s set and listen to both now #onrepeat; transported for two moments from my rainy day desk above San Francisco to Tucson, purple lights strobing across grooving crowds, the feeling that we all feed the beat of a common heart.

Soulection’s Onyx-takeover was everything I would have predicted or manifested in my wildest, biting baby-free dreams. IAMNOBODIE turned the vibes up to Valentine-sexy ­with relaxed, soulful beats and remixes. Next, Insightful turned up the heat till it flowed like syrup.

When Sango played the final set of the night, of our Gem and Jam, the crowd was pure love. His music is just so damn good—like a home-cooked meal made of whole ingredients, not processed, irradiated junk. Whole hip hop, R&B, and baile funk flavored with something Sango keeps secret.

Maybe it’s his ability to synthesize deeper meaning from the mainstream. His ability to pull silk threads from the tracks that bump from every other passing car and rebuild them as rain clouds. Sweat beaded in the smalls of our backs. That Portuguese version of “Antidote?” Fire. I’ve heard Sango call his style “spiritual bass” and you know what? I get it. It’s good for the soul.

“Do you like this?” I yell/asked my attorney (when does one speak softly at a festival? Not when speakers are mere-feet away, not after beats drop, not then. Maybe in the sacred space, in heart-centered meditation.) I couldn’t hear her response but she was smiling, which was all I needed.

If you’re wondering whether my attorney and I will return to Gem and Jam next year, let’s just say: we’ve reserved our hotel room. I made my intentions known to the prairie dogs and saguaros, who’ve promised to keep the beat alive till next February. My attorney advises me to end with a transformational message, so here goes: I think I’m in love.

An edited version of this review appears on ElectronicaLife.com