The Gathering of the Vibes has been an East Coast summer institution of Grateful Dead-centric music and hijinks since 1996, when it was founded by Ken Hays as a performance offshoot of Terrapin Tapes, his successful tapers supply source. The Vibes return to Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Seaside Park on July 23-26, with another strong lineup featuring Bob Weir and Ratdog, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Levon Helm, moe., Buddy Guy, Grace Potter, David Gans, the McLovins, and dozens of other acts. We spoke to Ken recently about the Vibes — where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Richard Gehr: How did you get into the festival business, Ken?
Ken Hays: It happened when Jerry passed away. Terrapin Tapes started in August ’91 and was going great. I was on tour with the boys, saw some 370 shows, and did some work with the Rainforest Action Network to help get Mitsubishi out of the rainforest. I really enjoyed being on the road with my friends and doing my thing. Then Jerry passed away and it turned a lot of us upside-down, wondering what do we do from here. Phish was raging then, so the business was still doing OK. We had a beautiful gathering in Golden Gate Park when Jerry passed. Then the Dead organization approached the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation about doing a gathering in Central Park, but Mayor Giuliani denied the proposal based on service costs. But me and my friends from Duprees’s Diamond News had a database of Deadheads, so we sent out a flyer and spread the word. We went to SUNY Purchase Arts Center and said, “We wanna do a music, arts, and camping festival on the campus.” We met with the director of performing arts, an incredibly cool guy, and at first we didn’t tell him that it would be Deadhead heaven and a gathering of the tribe. So on Memorial Day weekend 1996, we had 3,500 Deadheads camping out and enjoying each other’s company. Moe. headlined along with Max Creek. It was a beautiful event that went off flawlessly. The following year the name mutated to Gathering of the Vibes. But it’s tough to call something “Deadhead”-related and be welcomed back. Just before the event at SUNY Purchase, the school’s president saw an article about us in The New York Times. He called up the director of the performing arts center and said, “What’s this Deadhead Heaven on my campus? Your job’s on the line here, man. If anything goes wrong, you’re done.” But it was beautiful. The following year we needed more space, so we went to Westchester County Park, where we doubled in size. That’s how it all began.
RG: How has the Gathering changed over the years?
KH: It was always a gathering celebrating Jerry and the music of the Dead. The lineups have changed and evolved. James Brown performed with us in 2003. The Allman Brothers were with us, and all the surviving Grateful Dead members have performed at the Vibes. Jerry was into all types of music, so we’ve got a cross-section. This year we’ve got everything from Guster to State Radio to Bobby Weir to Levon Helm and the Harlem Gospel Choir. We embrace a lot of musical styles.
RG: How does the Gathering help the environment?
K: It doesn’t. We’ve got thousands of people driving and flying across the country, and that’s not helping the environment. But once they get to the show, we have an educational forum called Green Vibes. We have experts and professors, many from Yale University, who bring models of nuclear power plants, coal plants, or solar, wind and hydro alternative-energy options. They come with no ulterior motive or agenda except to provide facts about our alternative energy options. Our goal with Green Vibes is to help attendees make educated decisions about what they can do in their day-to-day lives.
RG: So how green are the Vibes?
KH: This year the only diesel we’ll use at the Gathering will be for the stage, sound, and light generators. We tried the solar option on our Green Vibes stage, but the technology isn’t there yet to be able to run it for 12 hours a day, so it will be partially solar-powered. We’re making progress. In five years or less, I’m optimistic we’ll be able to fully run some of the stages from alternative renewable energy. We’ve eliminated almost all generators from the site except for the stages. Everything else is from our temporary power facilities. We come off the city grid, which is generated predominantly by coal, but we offset our power consumption with wind and carbon credits.
RG: What charities or nonprofits do the Vibes support?
KH: We have more than 20 local and national 501(c)(3) organizations in our nonprofit village. Last year attendees donated about 2,500 pounds of nonperishable food items. This year’s goal is to triple that number. We’ve been very supportive of the Connecticut Special Olympics. I wish we could accommodate more nonprofits. There are so many organizations out there that are really in considerable need. It’s heart-warming and reaffirming that donations to food pantries are up across the country even in these difficult economic times. They’re not even close to covering the need we face but we have to at least acknowledge that there is hope out there.