Ken Hays, a 16-year Weston resident, first “gathered the vibes” all the way back in 1996 for a festival named Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe to honor the life and music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.
Since those initial concerts, Mr. Hays’s Gathering of the Vibes Music, Arts, and Camping Festival in Bridgeport has grown from 3,500 participants to the more than 25,000 expected to attend this weekend. The festival starts tonight, Thursday, July 19, and runs through Sunday, July 22.
The festival organizer also sits on the board of directors for HeadCount.org, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that registers young adults to vote at music festivals across the country.
Mr. Hays grew up in Greenwich as a self-proclaimed Grateful Dead aficionado. He spent many nights as a young man frequenting their shows, and making friends within the Deadhead community, and especially “having fun right out of college.”
“For a number of years my friends and I would get together and go to Giants Stadium or the Meadowlands for Grateful Dead shows,” Mr. Hays said. “We always knew when The Dead came into town we’d see old friends we haven’t seen in a long time.”
After graduating from college in Colorado and working a job at NBC in New York City, Mr. Hays realized that he didn’t fit into the category of a person who could work eight-hour days in an office building.
Instead, he set out to pave his own path to success. Soon after quitting his job at NBC, he started a company called Terrapin Tapes, based in Fairfield County. The inspiration for this new business came from — surprise — the Grateful Dead.
“It meant a lot to me that the Grateful Dead were the first band to let their fans record their shows with professional recording equipment,” he said. “They’d set up an area next to the stage where you could record for free. You can imagine that the record labels were very reluctant to allow this to happen.”
According to Mr. Hays, Deadheads from around the country would trade these tapes with one another with the help of tape trading newsletters. “There was never any monetary value,” he said. “You couldn’t sell tapes, only trade them.” But Mr. Hays was keen enough to launch a business supplying tapers with blank tapes.
The future festival organizer started a distributorship with Maxwell, Panasonic and Sony, selling blank audio media to tapers, and to the bands themselves who wanted recordings for their personal archives “at prices much lower than big box stores could sell them,” he said.
Mr. Hays went on tour with the Grateful Dead from 1991 until bandleader Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, promoting his business, selling tapes, and handing out flyers.
During those years, he made great friends within the Grateful Dead subculture of fans. After Mr. Garcia’s passing in 1995, Mr. Hays and many other Deadheads worried those friendships would be lost along with the musician’s life. That general anxiety, he said, was the “seed from which the festival really blossomed.”
He had always been inspired by bringing communities together in “the spirit of music,” and realized that he wanted to honor the fellowship felt by so many Grateful Dead fans by planning a memorial show for Jerry Garcia.
In 1996, he and a few friends began planning Deadhead Heaven on the campus of SUNY Purchase, which had agreed to the show without realizing it would be a Jerry Garcia memorial concert. When The New York Times published an article titled “Dead Come Alive Again for 2 Day Festival,” Mr. Hays admits, “the president of Purchase was a little taken aback.”
Nonetheless, he said, “Deadhead Heaven was a beautiful gathering of almost 7,000 people. Now, here we are 17 years later in a beautiful waterfront park on 370 acres of land originally donated to Bridgeport by then Mayor P.T. Barnum.”
The festival, which takes place this weekend, July 19-22, at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, still pays homage the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Surviving members of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir and Phil Lesh will take the stage with their own respective bands during the festival.
Mr Hays said the festival’s devotion to The Dead keep more than 70% of patrons returning year after year.
But the festival hasn’t been filled solely by Deadheads in recent years. Mr. Hays takes great pride in Gathering of the Vibes being a family entertainment event.
He said the best part about the festival is “there are so many families that are coming in. The moms and dads want to see the old school artists, and the kids want to see the up-and-comers. It’s a family affair.”
He noted that more than 2,000 children under 15 attended the festival last year, which is a much higher number than most other festivals, and accounts for 10% of the overall draw.
The adults may come out for the music, but young kids aren’t disappointed by the other activities the festival has to offer, including extensive beach areas, a ferris wheel, and a children’s corner where activities are tailored to those under the age of 12.
“It’s so great to have three generations come to enjoy so many other aspects of the festival. It’s clean, and healthy, and engaging to kids and adults alike. Plus, it’s all within Fairfield County, which is my home,” Mr. Hays said.
For information on the musical line-up, camping at the festival and tickets, visit gatheringofthevibes.com.
Though Mr. Hays will certainly be in front of the stage for Lesh and Weir’s bands, he is especially excited to see a Fairfield County group, Band Together.
He says of the band, “They are an amazing group of musicians that perform throughout Fairfield County and for each one of their shows they pick a local charity and donate all the revenue to the charity. Not everyone in Fairfield County is living in a mansion. There are kids that are going without a roof over their heads. We need to do everything we can for them because non-profits are getting hit by the recession just like the state capital. Little projects like Band Together are very admirable.”
Mr. Hays is no stranger to non-profit groups himself. He sits on the board of directors for HeadCount.org, a 501(c)(3) organization supporting young voter registration.
Mr. Hays said that in “a time where there is an undisputed stagnation and crippling partisanship, recent high school and college kids are feeling disenfranchised, as if their vote doesn’t count. We’re trying to change that perspective with HeadCount.org.”
The organization is based in the New York City offices of Relix Magazine, a Jam-Band Boutique Magazine, and has registered more than 175,000 young adults in the usual areas, like high schools and colleges, but most especially at music festivals around the country. They are aligned with more than 80 nationally known bands, including 90s alt-rockers Cake and folk-jam band Belá Fleck and the Flecktones.
The most amazing fact about this organization, Mr. Hays says, is “over 80% of young adults registered by our organization end up voting in the next election.”
He added, “The music community needs to do its part, and use its influence to engage those that are feeling disengaged. We need to say: Find something that you’re passionate about, whether it be gay rights, or legalization of marijuana, or healthcare, or supporting the arts! Whatever you’re passionate about, step up and be heard.”
For Mr. Hays, whose lifestyle is “insanely paced,” Weston is “truly a sactuary.” He has lived in the community for 16 years and loves it.
“It’s a place where the people have a great love and respect for life. That’s something that you can’t put a price on,” he said.
Mr. Hays also harbors a desire that many of his Weston neighbors might not know about.
He happily recalled Greenwich’s town fair, which had the Dave Mathews Band as its headliner.
“It was a great event, and I think that it is something that would go over very well here in Weston. We’re all rushing around and working too hard, but this would be a great opportunity to get family and friends together to enjoy music. I hope one day I can make a town gathering like this happen.”