Gem and Jam 2017
Fifty years ago, the Grateful Dead released their eponymous debut album, and tens of thousands of hippies converged on the Haight-Asbury neighborhood in San Francisco for what would become known as the Summer of Love. The United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War and one of the biggest riots in history over the course of five days in Detroit. I have been thinking a lot about the role of music and festivals in our current society, and the role of music in escapism. The divisiveness of the past year has left me with an uneasy feeling about what it means to come of age in an America with alternative facts. Festivals are beautiful because of the convergence of different kinds of people and the escape from reality. For the three days I was at Gem and Jam, I did not check the news once, and attending the festival reminded me of the importance of music.
The festival scene has become more and more homogenized in the past few years, and the market is becoming oversaturated. The same few acts hit the festival circuit every summer, and attendees go to the closest regional festival that reflects the music they like. Big name festivals are not a draw anymore—the New York Times’ decision to only cover one of the major three festivals last year due to the massive overlap of the lineups sparked lots of debate about the future of the industry. The numbers show it too—Bonnaroo’s attendance experienced a forty-five percent drop. LiveNation and Insomniac have cornered most of the market, and radius clauses have spread the industry very thin. Gem and Jam was the antithesis to this. The niche aspect of the gem show provided a unique experience, and I doubt the majority of the people there has heard of the latest flash-in-the-pan viral EDM sensation. Going to a LiveNation festival and seeing massive acts is spectacular, but I do not experience the break from reality in the way that I do at things like Gem and Jam. As unofficial vendors wandered the campgrounds selling grilled cheese and tie-dyes in order to go to the next festival, it was hard to tell that the outside world even existed. Thousands of people came together and baked under the Arizona sun for a common purpose.
Seeing huge bands is an experience that cannot be replicated, but one benefit of smaller festivals is that the majority of the acts have cult-like live followings, so the live talent is fairly well curated. If you’re terrible live you are not going to make it very far on the jam band/festival circuit, and there is nothing more frustrating than being excited for a large act only to have it be boring. My favorite set was probably The Floozies—some of their hits have been on my party playlist for a while, but I had never seen them live before. They did live mixing as well as live instrumentation and it was awesome. They also had the correct balance of being genuinely good musicians while having a “lit” concert. Other notable sets include Gramatik, who is always fun, and Lotus, who absolutely shredded. There was a special Grateful Dead late night cover set on Sunday with members of the Motet, a psychedelic funk band, and Steve Kimock, who played with some of the post-Jerry iterations of the Dead. Unfortunately, I had to get back to the real world early the following morning, and staying up until 4 AM for another night would have been a horrible idea. Some of the smaller random acts were also quite good—I discovered 8 Minutes to Burn, a local Tucson jam band, as they did a funky cover of Iko Iko that solidified my decision to see them again whenever they played locally. Another of my favorite and most notable sets was G. Jones. Admittedly, I had kind of slept on him prior to his set, but he killed it. I had just associated him with Bassnectar, but he managed to bring his own unique and powerful vibe to the festival. Overall, the music was very well curated and there wasn’t a single set that I actively disliked.
The festival also went out of their way to cater to their audience. While the festival focused on jam bands and various types of EDM, there were multiple different styles within each of the genres. There was always music going on that I liked, and the acts were diverse enough to where no genre was overrepresented. For example, I personally don’t like the noodley, spacey style of jam bands like Phish or the Disco Biscuits, and most major festivals mainly book these types of jam bands. After seeing Phish’s Mike Gordon and being underwhelmed I was able to see The Motet play a crunch funk-rock set two days later. I also love electro-swing artists like Griz and Gramatik, but seeing those types of sets over and over gets kind of repetitive. Gramatik played after Lotus, who shredded. In my opinion, another good thing about small festivals is that acts that would normally be on the undercard of a festival or be a subheadliner get to utilize the production value of a headliner. Seeing the Floozies command the stage and play a long set is something it’s hard to see at larger festivals. I hope the festival tries to expand into other genres and styles, because the curation was very well thought-out.
However, there were a few negatives. This was the first year Gem and Jam provided camping, and their first year at the Pima County Fairgrounds, and it showed. My friends and I had to put up our tent on concrete, which was one of the single most uncomfortable things I have ever done. The concrete also absorbed all of the heat or cold, meaning that we hung out in the grass for most of the day. There were also not large, accessible water stations, just water fountains. However, the staff was helpful and friendly the entire time, and handed out as much free bottled water as they could. Gem and Jam needs to iron out the kinks of the new venue, but the ethos was clearly there the entire time. Also, while I am all for radical inclusion, smaller festivals and jam bands tend to attract vagabonds that have stopped actually caring around the music and just go festival to festival begging for money or selling stone wraps. This is fun in moderation, but I had three different pseudo-homeless people talk to me about chemtrails, and having people just come up and borrow my stuff without asking got really annoying. The naive college kids going to Bonnaroo or Coachella for the first time and having their minds blown are much more fun than people who are transient hipsters. This vibe was much more prevalent than other festivals or Dead shows that I have been to, but the feeling of self-expression was still there, despite the wooks. Most of my peers have adopted a perpetual feeling a sense of malaise and confusion towards recent events around the world, and we all need to experience a festival. One of my good friends came with me for his first festival somewhat on a whim, and I think he looked the happiest of any person I have ever seen. Hearing him talk about the experiences and personal connections he had with others showed me why I spend most of my time obsessing over live music.
Throughout the festival as I was thinking of what I wanted to do for the review, I kept thinking of what a festival means in 2017. I guess I don’t really know. The entire thing was a blast, and seeing the art and diversity pulsate through the campgrounds was unique and amazing. I bought a deep-fried Oreo for a dollar from an unlicensed vendor, and went to an after-hours party in a geodesic dome with thirty to forty people. The production team seems to want to make Gem and Jam a big event, so hopefully it will continue to develop well. Personally, I would like for them to book a couple of mainstream EDM acts next year to draw more of a crowd from UA and ASU. My feet are covered in blisters, my skin is so sunburned that I have been in constant agony all day, and I still smell disgusting despite showering twice. Which means it was a successful festival for me. To conclude the review, I would absolutely recommend going next year. I am very eager to see how this festival develops, since they obviously put the effort and thought into it.