It’s May 13, a good two months out from the kickoff of this year’s Gathering of the Vibes, at around 11 a.m. I’m on hold, waiting for Ken Hays, head Vibesman, to come to the phone, and the call-waiting music, naturally, is from a live Grateful Dead show, probably from the late ‘80s. I can’t quite make out the song, but I can tell Bob Weir’s singing something about lightning. Before long, Hays comes to the phone, amid a good measure of background clamor. We chat about the festival’s past, present and future in Bridgeport.
What made you launch the Gathering of the Vibes?
Back in 1991, I went to school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and when I finished up school, I started a company called Terrapin Tapes. We were a wholesale distributor for Sony and Maxell cassettes, and we produced wholesale gear for fans who came to shows. I was out on tour, having fun with my friends, going from city to city, state to state, handing out fliers for wholesale tapes, cheaper than local record stores. Having a ball, seeing the dead, supplying the band, as well as their fans with high-end audio gear and all the blank audio tapes they needed.
And then Jerry died in August of 1995. We all realized that our world had changed. Friends we’d see: we knew we wouldn’t be seeing them any longer. So we needed to figure out a way to meet and gather once a year.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1996 we went to SUNY Purchase college and we told them we wanted to throw a two-day arts and music (and camping) festival. They said, “Well, we’ve done that before.” There was a precedent set. A couple weeks before the event, though, the president called the director called up the head of the performing arts center and said, “What?”
3,500 people showed up. It was a beautiful event. We had Max Creek, moe. headlined. Nobody had seen moe. and a bunch of other bands. That was our starting point. The next year, in 1997 at the Croton Point Park in Westchester, that was the first year we called it the Gathering of the Vibes.
Why hold the Gathering of the Vibes in Connecticut?
I’m from Fairfield County. The company’s been there for 20 years. Connecticut is home. In 1999 we brought the festival to Seaside Park, and then again in 2000. The city and the Bridgeport parks department then did some massive renovations: 80 acres of ball fields, really a spectacular job overhauling the park. After the Vibes, they started the renovation, so we went to Upstate NY for six years. You can’t park cars on recently reseeded lawn. We came back to Bridgeport in 2007.
Connecticut has seen some really tough times. The Governor is laying people off, people are leaving the state after college. People should realize that for a state that’s thought of as being so wealthy. I think it’s good for Bridgeport, good for the state and good for the organization.
Was there a moment when you realized this thing had really gotten big?
It was when Bob Weir and Ratdog appeared at Seaside Park with us in 2000. That was really the first nod of acknowledgement that this is a special event, one that came out of a grassroots community that has also transformed itself from a Deadhead reunion. When he agreed to join us, that was a special for the community. They knew how much it meant for us for Bob to pay attention.
That was around the time they were ready to start the Dead thing up again. Bob had continued to work with his band, but all the others... The devastation that we felt or I personally felt after Jerry’s passing. Right around that time … five years after his passing, they all felt fidgety.
What excites you about this year’s event?
In addition to Furthur performing on Friday night and Levon [Helm] and Susan [Tedeschi] and Derek [Trucks] … Some years its really challenging, whether it’s not enough money to get the bands we really want or the routing of the bands, it’s difficult. This year it really came together beautifully: Perry Farrell is someone I’ve wanted to have for years. The same with Elvis Costello. The pieces fell together with the lineup, and I’m thrilled with what we’ve got, based on ticket sales being significantly higher than a year ago at this time. Camping will sell out in advance. All the VIP packages will sell out in advance.