Tucson’s Gem & Jam fest is back with music, workshops and more

One of the country’s most celebrated jam bands is headlining a roster of more than 60 artists at the 15th annual Gem & Jam Festival Feb. 3-5.

The String Cheese Incident, which is celebrating its 30th year, will play two sets on Sunday, Feb. 5, the final day of the music and arts festival that includes daily workshops covering everything from the healing powers of crystal and tea to family yoga, drumming and meditation.

The festival also has a number of kids events on its aptly named “Starseed Rainbow Family Circus Stage,” where kids can join in on a dance party, paint and catch the Riley Rainbow Family Circus Show.

“There’s a little something for everybody,” said festival coordinator and founder Toby White, who launched the event as a gem show afterparty in 2005 and has seen it grow into a three-day event at the Pima County Fairgrounds that includes camping, four stages, several art galleries and dozens of vendors selling clothing, arts and crafts and, of course, gems.

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Around 15 food trucks will also set up their mobile kitchens on site.

The festival has never really been affiliated with the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, which runs through Feb. 12, although it has sort of hung onto the gem show’s coattails.

“When this began we were much smaller so there was a huge importance with an integration with the gem show,” White said, adding that the festival has gotten so big that it is no longer an issue. “Some people think we are the gem show.”

White, who graduated from Northern Arizona University’s hospitality program, started the festival as a one-day event in 2005 after a friend who was involved in the gem show complained that there was nothing much to do once the vendors closed.

The idea was to bring high-energy jam bands that would turn a concert into a party. For the first few years, as the festival made its way to ever bigger venues and grew from a single day to three days, the lineup grew to include local and national New Age, electronica, folk and rock artists that would appeal to a broad audience. The festival’s target audience, White said, is 20s to early 30s, although the festival has added events and attractions that appeal to families and older people.

“We usually try no matter what to have somebody who is a jam band act that kind of fits what the vision has always been,” said White, who lives in Bend, Oregon.

Gem & Jam took a two-year hiatus in 2011 and ’12, when the economy took a dramatic downturn, and the 2021 event was called off due to the pandemic, which was in its infancy at the 2020 event.

“People weren’t even talking about COVID-19” when they held the event in early February 2020, White said.

When the festival returned last February, White said a record 7,500 people attended each of the three days.

“I think the timing and the fact that we were sort of the first thing to happen (post-pandemic), people were chomping at the bit to get back to what they had experienced,” he said.

Gem & Jam is the largest festival White produces. In 2017 to commemorate the solar eclipse, he coordinated the Symbiosis Gathering in Oregon, which attracted 65,000 people.

Researchers analyzed the music choices of guests on the British radio program ‘Desert Island Discs’. They found that the music we listen to between the ages of 10 and 30 defines us for the rest of our lives.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch

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