This is part one of an interview I did with Gathering of the Vibes Festival Director Ken Hays on April 15, 2010. In this part, we talk about the history of the festival and the changing trends in music since he first started out following the Grateful Dead.
If you live in the Northeast and you’ve never heard of the Gathering of the Vibes music festival, then it’s time to tune in. Now getting juiced for its 15th straight year, the Vibes brings an average of 17,000 to 20,000 people a day (July 29 to Aug 1) into its time capsule to the 60s and 70s when Jerry Garcia was so much more than the inspiration for an ice cream flavor.
This year the Vibes Festival is back in Bridgeport, CT, same location as last year when Crosby, Stills and Nash were headliners.
In 2008, I managed a beer tent at the festival and it’s probably the closest I will ever come to an experience like Woodstock (which I missed by several years). Four days of an open-air, play-no-matter-what-happens kind of an event, with two main stages and smaller solar stage facing the Long Island Sound. And people just hang loose for a change!
Campers travel from all around the world to plunk themselves down at Seaside Park (right next to University of Bridgeport) and let the weekend unfold. Food vendors are everywhere, and you can wander over to the arts and crafts vendors when you want take a break from the main stage.
And then there’s the music…
This summer, some of the headliners are Furthur with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Jimmy Cliff, Little Feat, Dark Star Orchestra, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Rhythm Devils featuring Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzman and Keller Williams. The Vibes homepage gives you the full lineup, which includes the perennial Wavy Gravy (who MC’d Woodstock) as Master of Ceremonies. There’s a lot more to say about this fantastic festival, but I’d like to save room for you to hear from the originator and Director of the Festival, Ken Hays. He’s a pretty clever guy with a lot of insights into the shifts in the music business.
This is part one of an interview I did with Ken on April 15, 2010:
Arts Enclave: Ken, how do you build and hold a following for an event of this size?
Ken Hays: Just about 75-80% of our attendees have been with us for years and they keep coming back and bring the kids. The kids have gotten older―we used to have a real robust kid’s corner, and we still have that―but now these kids are in their teens and they don’t want to get their faces painted anymore, so we’ve got musical instruments and teen activities.
AE: So you’re passing on the musical thing to the next generation?
KH: That’s kinda how we’re looking at it…last year with Mom and Dad wanting to see Crosby Stills & Nash and Buddy Guy, and the kids wanting to see Guster and State Radio, and that kind of thing. It’s a little something for the old school and for the kids for the next generation. It’s kind of a passing of the torch.
AE: You just summed up your shifting demographics…
KH: We’ve still got our core fan base that loves the Vibes and wouldn’t miss it for the world. But at the same time I think it’s important to branch out and reach out to people who would be a little outside our demographic, by having Damian Marley and Nas, for example, or Mixmaster Mike of the Beastie Boys….Something a little different, something to keep it fresh and creative, while at the same time making sure that those who have been with us for years are pleased with the lineup.
AE: Talk a little about the history of the Vibes…
KH: It came out of the Grateful Dead following…the seed from which it all stemmed from was the passing of Jerry Garcia in August of 1995. I had been on tour with the Dead for years, and when he passed a lot of people wanted to do a gathering in NY similar to the gathering they had in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park. But when Mayor Guiliani said ‘No’ to a gathering in Central Park due to the cost (for police, fire, EMS, and cleanup), myself and a couple of friends got together and said ‘there needs to be a way that the Deadhead community can come together to celebrate the life of Jerry Garcia and the music of the Grateful Dead.’
AE: You said you had been touring with the Dead?
KH: I had company called, Terrapin Tapes, which was a blank tape and pro audio wholesaler, and we supplied tapes to many of national touring bands—the Allman Brothers, Phish, the Dead, and supplied them with all their blank take media for all the tapers that come to the concerts with microphone and tape deck in hand and traded their live concert performances with others. We supplied their blank media needs, as well as microphones, DAT machines, audio recorders, and that kind of thing. We were very much involved in the Deadhead community since 1991, and this was something we felt we all wanted to do.
Every year, when the Dead would come to town, it would be an annual gathering. We’d call our friends and family that we hadn’t seen in a long time and get together at Dead shows throughout the country. And we realized with the passing of Jerry that we weren’t going to have the opportunities to meet up at shows and enjoy each other’s company anymore. So we held our first one, we called it “Deadhead Heaven– A Gathering of the Tribes,” which took place on Memorial Day weekend, 1996. We had about 3500 people at a beautiful gathering of Deadheads. Moe and Max Creek headlined. And it was all we hoped it would be.
We changed the name the following year to the Gathering of the Vibes and the attendance doubled, and we were off to the races…(AE Note: that was the year it was held in my original home village of Croton-on-Hudson, NY)
AE: How long have you been at Seaside Park in Bridgeport?
KH: We were at Seaside Park in ‘99 and 2000, and then the City of Bridgeport did a major renovation of the park, so we had to leave for that year. They hydroseeded and put down this beautiful ball field, and you can’t park cars or camp on recently seeded and landscaped grounds, so we went to upstate NY for 6 years came back in 2007. Now we have a contract to stay at Seaside through summer of 2012, if we choose to do so.
AE: Did your fans follow you when you moved?
KH: They did…A lot of them did. And we picked up a lot of fans from Albany/Duchess region.
AE: How far do people travel to the festival?
They fly in from all over the country, and all over the world, actually. It’s something that’s real meaningful to them, because this is an annual gathering of friends and family.
AE: What is your “sound”? Obviously originally, it reflected the Grateful Dead, but it’s morphed quite a bit, hasn’t it?
KH: Absolutely. Over the years, it’s really become more about a diversity of genres. The Grateful Dead was a culmination of all different musical genres. Jerry Garcia’s love was initially bluegrass, and so we now cover from bluegrass to funk, gospel, to rock n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and reggae, and every musical genre. That’s been consistent throughout the years. Back in 2003, James Brown was with us, so it’s really been an evolution.
It’s challenging to keep new and fresh artists coming in and not become stagnant and repeat artists year after year. We do have some artists who have been with us from the beginning, but it’s important to keep fresh blood coming in and fostering and enhancing the creative musical element.
AE: Who’s been with you from the beginning?
KH: Deep Banana Blackout, Reid Genauer from Assembly of Dust (he might have missed one year), Strangefolk has played 13 or 14 Gathering of the Vibes. There are just a few bands that have stayed with us since the beginning.
It’s appropriate to have Deep Banana Blackout as they are Bridgeport-based and in their heyday they were touring venues throughout the country. Now they come back to play this area very infrequently, just because of family commitments with the band members. But Deep Banana Blackout is one of those bands that step up and shine and they get such an incredible response from people because they really only get the chance to see them once a year…and that’s exciting for people.
AE: What does it mean to the band to be in the festival?
KH: We had 2300 band submissions for 2010. It’s very, very difficult for bands to break into the larger festivals and that’s one of the most difficult parts of our job is to say no, and not be able to extend an invite to so many incredibly talented bands, but there’s just limited time available on the stage and we have to be really selective about who we choose. There’s an enormous amount of talent out there that we’re not able to showcase, which is one of the more difficult things for us.
Look for Part II of this interview in July where Ken talks about how bands can survive in the new social media age of music.
The Gathering of the Vibes takes place in Bridgeport, CT, July 29th – August 1, 2010.
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