Gem & Jam: the Coalescence of Music and Stones
Desert fest is metaphysically larger than the promotional literature would have you believe
By Sonny Forrest
Alex Grey stepped back and studied his canvas like none of us were there. He did this every few minutes during his live-painting stints at Gem & Jam 2014, considering his next move. Watching the man dab paint in places imperceptible to the crowd’s collective vision, I felt the overwhelming sense that his psychedelic paintings become exponentially larger than the sum of their parts, stroke after stroke. And while this particular finished product, a feminine face with a prominent third eye, is more striking than we all anticipated, that Grey’s most pristine self-expression lies in his touching the brush to the canvas, in the progression of the piece, is undeniable. That we could see this unadulterated self-expression live, narrated by music (by Thriftsworks no less), was a privilege. If you ever get the chance to see something like this, I suggest you take it.
The festival, held on the grounds of a former meatpacking plant, radiated an odd serenity. Though the space hosted unspeakable acts of cruelty in its previous life, Gem & Jam was the swath of baby pine trees sprouted from a forest’s charred remains; it’s an apt illustration of the cycle that governs all things. You can’t underestimate the ingredients involved in such a production. And I won’t mind chasing the gathering’s general “lightness of being” each day until next time.
If “positivity,” in the most abstract possible sense, had a soundtrack, this festival’s lineup would fit nicely. Even the bill’s one decidedly downtempo act, the Purity Ring DJ set, was unusually upbeat. I got to talk with Corin Roddick, the male half of Purity Ring. He told me that because the full band (the other member, Megan James was absent) the performance had room to drift away from the band’s melancholic tinge into something lighter, more, well, positive. In Corin’s opinion, less set-up translates to less hassle and less stress performing (even though Purity Ring’s live shows are more upbeat than their recorded tracks). “[With a DJ set] it’s easy,” he told me. “I just show up and play.”
Of course this sentiment could be applied to any of the festival attendees (with the possible exception of vendors because of the money they have riding on whether or not they break even). The space was dotted with fire dancers, hula hoopers, poi spinners, and casual head bobbers, all grooving with plenty of room. With only two stages, not only was it easy to catch parts of any musical act, but the crowd — I heard various estimates, but all around 2,000 — didn’t congeal into a suffocating blob; though at times it got close.
Krooked Drivers, a Boulder-based electro duo had the entire indoor room moving during their Friday night set. Their sounds blend soulful re-purposed-from-vinyl vocal samples with aerated melodies and jazzy rhythm. Maddy O’Neal and Donnie Dalbora, the (alleged) couple that makes up Krooked Drivers, are also some of the nicest, most unpretentious people I think I’ve ever met (most artists I talked to were nice, but not that nice).
Another combination killer artist/friendly human begin is Psydell (real name Josh Sidell). He kicked off the music on Saturday afternoon, stirring up the crowd with his regal space-glitch sounds. Throughout his set, some guy was dancing with the stage’s flowers, foisting them up and down, completely immersed in his own world. Duly noted that that’s what happens when Psydell plays drums on a midi controller. Shit quickly gets weird.
Even though the music was the ingredient that narrated the festival experience, a solid third of the festival was made up of vendors who were more than happy to shoot the shit about their wares, comprised mostly of crystals, jewelry, and paintings. I saw a $30,000 pendant that came with its own display stand. I saw a $12,000 piece of tourmaline. I saw a boss Fabergé-style, gem-studded ostrich egg. (Though I don’t think it was a real ostrich egg.) These objects all added to the vibe.
Keep in mind that Gem & Jam coincided with the last weekend of the Pueblo Gem & Mineral Show, a two-week event that featured vendors and exhibitors from all over the place, and also preceded the Tuscon Gem and Mineral Show. The Gem & Jam festival is an ancillary event that probably wouldn’t happen if these two behemoths weren’t already drawing a crowd to the desert. Prospective buyers, vendors, and gawkers flowed in from as far away as Thailand to check out the crystalline wares at these two marketplaces. There were even a few vendors that set up shop at both the Pueblo Gem Show and Gem & Jam. And though Gem & Jam’s selection was slanted toward jewelry, I’m not suggesting the crystal selection was weak, only that Gem & Jam patrons prefer wearing their crystals as jewelry.
I spoke to at least one couple that understands this. Buddy Austin and Meghan Davis, of Third Eye Assembly and Genus Apis, respectively, vended pro, one-of-a-kind jewelry at the Pueblo Gem Show by day and Gem & Jam by night. While Buddy’s clear specialty is wire-wrapped pendants, he can silversmith too. Check out one his polygonal silver rings. By contrast, Meghan’s jewelry combines crystals and wood that strike me as somehow Scandinavian. Her polished wooden rings, earrings, and pendants are that tastefully minimal, rarities in a handmade jewelry market that revolves around an ultra-busy (borderline gaudy) aesthetic. But taste is subjective.
The Pueblo Gem Show was another a treat that added to the festival even though the two were unaffiliated. Instead of music at the Pueblo Gem Show there were 15ft geodes and raw amber. I instantly recognized the people gawking and taking pictures and not really buying anything as people who came primarily for Gem & Jam. For these people (myself included), the Pueblo Gem Show was an occurrence incidental to Gem & Jam, an added bonus that happened to coincide with a solid music festival.
The sum of the festival’s elements transcends quantitative addition in their creation of an ethereal atmosphere at a former meatpacking plant. I mean… Alex Grey et al. Next year in the desert? If you’re looking for a smaller festival that’s not just about the music, but also crystals and live painting and yoga (which I totally missed but was interested in doing), you would probably dig Gem & Jam as your mine.