A Decade of Good Vibes: A Conversation with the Gathering of the Vibes Ken Hays and Bob Kennedy
In 1996 the pain of Jerry Garcia’s passing was still fresh and the seeds of the modern jamband scene had barely begun to sprout. With the summer season rapidly approaching and no tour in sight, Deadheads struggled to figure out a way to keep the group’s extended family intact and its communal vibe alive. After city officials nixed a proposed New York City Garcia tribute, Terrapin Tapes’ Ken Hays and Connecticut- based concert promoter Bob Kennedy decided to take matters into their own hands, teaming with popular zine Dupree’s Diamond News for a weekend-long festival at Westchester, NY’s Purchase College. Recruiting some of the day’s finest talent, including moe., Max Creek, Strangefolk, Solar Circus, the Ominous Seapods and the Zen Tricksters, Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribes helped heal the pain of Garcia’s passing. A year later, Hays and Kennedy moved their festival a few towns upstate to Croton, NY and rechristened their festival the Gathering of the Vibes, helping turn the already burgeoning upstate New York music scene into a national attraction. A decade later, the Gathering of the Vibes is still the northeast’s premier jamband summit and one of the country’s longest running music festivals. Below Hays and Kennedy reflect on some of their favorite festival stories and muddiest memories.
KH- Well, we went to SUNY Purchase and said we wanted to put on a three-day music, arts and camping festival. We kind of kept the name Deadhead Heaven quiet because we didn’t want the university to know it was a gathering of Deadheads. They said cool, “we’ve done camping beforeMoms and Dads came out in their Volvos and brought their dogs and their kids.” So we got the green light and took out a half page in Relix and sent out mailers to all our customers letting people know that on Memorial Day weekend we were going to put together Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribes. moe. and Max Creek headlined and we had 3,500 people come out. It was families joining together again to celebrate Jerry’s life and community. A week out from the festival, the president of all of SUNY colleges called the president of SUNY Purchase and said “what is this rumor I hear about a Deadhead Heaven? I want everything locked down and, if anything goes wrong at this festival, your job is on the line!” [laughs] But everything worked out fine.
MG-Who was the first band you booked for the initial Gathering of the Vibes?
BK- I’d have to say the Zen Tricksters. At the time we were partners with Dupree’s Diamond News. They were very involved in the booking process as well and, in fact, the Zen Tricksters were kind of the unofficial Dupree’s Diamond News Dead cover band. The initial Gathering of the Vibes was called Deadhead Heaven and was specifically aimed at the Dead. So I’d say the Tricksters were the first act that was asked and moe. was probably the second.
MG- The Zen Tricksters are also the only band to play all ten Gathering of the Vibes, correct?
BK- The Zen Tricksters are the only one that had played, as a band, all ten years. But there are actually six people who have played at every Vibes. Jeff Mattson and Klyph Black of the Tricksters, Jen Durkin, Johnny Durkin and Benj LeFevre of Deep Banana Blackout and Erik Glockler of Strangefolk and now Windfalls. Strangefolk’s Jon Trafton (who is currently undergoing cancer treatment) did not play this year and Reid did not play in 2001. Deep Banana actually didn’t play the first year but Jen, Benji and Johnny were part of a gospel group called the Voices of Joy that played.
MG- Looking back, do you have a favorite Gathering of the Vibes?
KH- Well, up until this year it had always been 2000. We are based in Fairfield Country Connecticut and it was just so nice to be in our backyard. When I first booked the venue, people said, “Are you fucking insane, have you been to Bridgeport? Do you know the crime?” I worked on an ambulance as an MT in Bridgeport when it was the first city in America to declare bankruptcy —- so I knew what I was getting myself into. But I felt the city had come so far and was now in a place where they could support us and keep us safe. In the year 2000, we also had Bobby join us for the first time and it was incredibly special. Everything worked out fine and the weather was beautiful. Other than some of the logistical problems of getting people in this year, the overall family/community vibe and cleanliness made this my favorite Gathering of the Vibes. Bob [Kennedy] did an amazing job putting together the Tribute to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Jeff Mattson also stepped up and did an amazing job organizing the setlist and how the tribute went down.
BK- My favorite experience at the Vibes was probably at the1997 festival in Croton, NY. It was really sort of innocent on our part. We kind of had no idea what we were doing, but it was the most magical weekend we had done. Everyone was really well-behaved—-in a lot of ways it really ran itself. The staff for that event was really six people. I was in charge of the bands and the porta-a-potties. Mike, our production manager, was also in charge of the garbage. But, somehow it just all happened, and it was an incredible venue. I think the innocence and the lack of knowledge combined with the amazing outcome of it makes that the one I hold dearest to my heart. I think accomplishment-wise having Phil and Friends for two nights might permanently take the cake. Phil had a suite at the Holiday Inn or whatever. But after the first night, he came up to us and said, “Hey, there is a really good vibe here. Instead of going back to the hotel, do you mind if I just hang out?” He ended up hanging out on-site over night, had breakfast at one of the vendors, wondered around and got his kids a golf cart. To be able to give Phil that kind of experience was amazing.
MG- Several of the scene’s biggest names cut their teeth at the Gathering of the Vibes early on in their career. What band are you proudest to have nabbed first?
BK- Without shaking my own hand, Deep Banana Blackout [Note: Kennedy manages both Deep Banana Blackout and the Assembly of Dust]. At we booked them in ’97 the time they were just a local band in my neighborhood. I knew them and sort of befriended them—-I just thought they were awesome. I actually had to convince Ken to put them on the bill. His reaction, naturally, was kind of like, “Ok, I know you want to hook up your friends, but..” We put them on the bill and they ended up doing two sets, one by the campfire. By many accounts that campfire set was one of the most memorable experiences people had at the Vibes. At that show, Pete Shapiro, who was there, said, “I don’t know who you guys are, but you got to play at the Wetlands.” He was like “do you have a manager?” and they were like “Uh, Bob’s our manager” and that’s kind of how we got involved. Interestingly enough, after that weekend, people started calling Terrapin asking who that band was. At the time they didn’t have a CD or website. Ken was right, they were just my friends’ band.
We also all saw the promise in moe. Actually, Brian from the Seapods and I were reminiscing about the early Gathering of the Vibes. He said that Deadhead Heaven was the first time he looked at them and thought, “Wow, they are rock stars!” Up until then, they were just another band that played the same places the Seapods played. Strangefolk also always had promise. When they played Deadhead Heaven, I had never heard of them. But someone on their management team worked for Dupree’s —- that was really early on in their career. Later they said they could actually see an increase of Vibes fans when they played the Wetlands the following weekend.
MG- Gathering of the Vibes also helped cement Les Claypool’s place in the jamband world.
BK- We booked him like three weeks out from the Vibes 2000 [tidbit: Claypool was booked so late in the game that his name does not appear on Gathering of the Vibes 2000’s t-shirts]. At the time he had just done the Oyserhead thing and, I think, like one show with the Flying Frog Brigade in California. We talked to his manager and I kind of pitched him to the Vibes crew. They were like “Les Claypool? He’s the Primus guy. That’s not what we do.” He didn’t really have a band at the time —- so my brain started turning. I was like, well, Jay Lane has been in some bands with him and Jeff Chimenti was from that scene. They all kind of came out of the same circle of people and the common thread seemed to be Charlie Hunter. I was like, “We have all these guys Les has played with—-why don’t we just get him come out and they’ll back him up.” They talked about it and that’s how Les Claypool’s Rat Brigade came to be. It’s funny —- he came out by himself—-no tour manager—-and just got on a plane. When his show was over, I had to pay him and I was like, “well, who do I settle with?” He was like, “I guess you settle with me.” So we went in to my office and Les was like, “the last time I had to settle a show I got paid $50 and had to split it between 7 guys.” He was great. We rode around in a golf cart and watched the Upright Citizen’s Brigade.
KH- You’d think he is crazy and insane, but he totally is not. He is really sane and normal. Once he gets onstage, he goes ballistic, but he is actually a soft-spoken individual. He participated in a duel stage-jam with RatDog. It started with as an acoustic jam between him and Rob Wasserman and then the whole band came out. Weir came out and sat in with Les’s band and he introduced him as Eddie Van Halen —- it was just phenomenal. Weir played this “Other One” jam that was just stellar and over the top. I hope very soon we can release that along with other selections from our archives. I think we’ve done an amazing job documenting the Vibes experience. We have video dating back to the first Vibes——interviews with attendees, vendors and everyone’s thoughts on what Jerry meant to them. Now that Gathering of the Vibes Ten has passed, I look forward to getting the footage together. We have an incredible amount of footage, not only of the bands, but of the Vibe Tribe as well.
MG- What as-of-yet unattainable band would you like to see at the Gathering of the Vibes in the future?
BK- It would be a dream come true to have The Dead play in their entirety if they ever chose to tour again. Obviously some of the bigger bands that have influenced our scene like Dylan, Neil Young or Carlos Santana. Then there are bands like Galactic that we’ve never had for some reason. We just never crossed paths. I would love to have Spearhead every year. It was probably one of the best sets of music the Gathering of the Vibes has ever had and, by some accounts, one of the best sets of music they have ever played. At the time, I thought it was just a personal thing, but I’ve talked to people who say it was one of the best sets of music Spearhead has ever played.
KH: Neil Young. I have just an enormous amount of respect for Neil Young. I also just worked Camp Bisco, and it would be great to get those guys back again. I always had enormous respect for them as individuals, but I also have new respect for their entire community. I also had a wonderful opportunity to work on a charity event called the China Care foundation with Jeff Beck and BB King and it would be great to get them out.
MG- What was the benefit for?
KH: We raised almost a half million dollars for Chinese orphans. There is a really significant problem in China, especially for girls. This year we had Robert Randolph and Carlos Santana perform and raised just shy of a million for these orphans. It’s one of those events which really warms your heart. It would also be great to have Carlos out at the Vibes.
MG- One of the most interesting performances at this year’s Gathering of the Vibes was a one-off appearance by the Ominous Seapods. How did that reunion come to be?
BK- It didn’t really work out as well as we thought it would, but one of the things we were trying to do for our tenth anniversary was recreate the first year. We were trying to get Solar Circus to play and get moe. back. The Seapods played at the first four Gathering of the Vibes and when we first started out they were one of the bigger bands we had. They’re from the Albany area and are a big part of why this thing really got off the ground. It didn’t actually take that much convincing. They were like “10 years! We will be there!” Their set ended up being sort of a greatest hits show.
One of the things we try to do each year is give people something they will only see at the Gathering of the Vibes. You can get a million bands and they will each play at seven festivals in one configuration or another. So we always try to do a tribute or something unique. We did a Funk Jam (’04), the Jimi Hendrix/Janis Joplin/Jim Morrison Thirty Year Jam (’01) and obviously the Jerry Garcia tribute this year.
MG- For many years the Gathering of the Vibes celebrated the music of the Grateful Dead but, in 2003, you decided to shift the focus to the Allman Brothers. Why the change in direction?
KH- I had always wanted to do an Allman Brothers family reunion. It was keeping with our community/family vibe. It was really something quite special having Derek, his wife Susan and their little one there. It was about the Brothers and their families. It was really neat. 2003 was a tough year for us. We kicked off at Croton Point Park in May with a two-day, no camping festival. It was a little bit more mainstream and not jambandy. We had Chuck Berry, The RADS, Arlo Guthrie. We even put together a band for Chuck Berry with Nate Wilson (AOD), Eric Kalb (DBB) and Brian O’Callaghan (The Rafter Bats). It was phenomenal. But, there was a flood watch in effect, and it was 50 degrees. I absolutely lost my shirt. It was the worst decision I ever madedoing a show that early in the season when it’s always wet. I let my love of Croton Park get to me. The Vibes was good, but it wasn’t enough to support the two remaining shows in 2003, which were the Bridgeport Blues Festival and the Summit on the Sound Festival. To have to call Phil’s booking agent, and let him know we couldn’t do the show a couple months out, was the most difficult call I ever had to make—- especially after Vibes 2002 when Phil had such an amazing experience.
MG- Gathering of the Vibe 2003 marked the first time Dickey Betts shared a bill with the Allman Brothers Band in some time. Was there any backstage interaction between Dickey and his former bandmates?
KH- No. I worked really hard to try to make that happen and pushed it as far as I could. There was just such a family vibe there that I thought maybe it would all be OK in an optimistic thinking kind of way. I have no doubt that Dickey, Gregg and the rest of the band will work again someday because they are family and have such history. I am really hopeful that I will see them on the same stage together smiling at each other like they used to do.
MG- In 2002 the Gathering of the Vibes seemed to find a permanent home at the Harley Davidson Rendezvous in Mariaville, NY. How did you find that site?
BK: We did Camp Creek and the Summit Festival there in 2001 and the Vibes there in ’02, ’03, ’04 and ’05. We were kind of looking for a venue and Max Creek has been doing Camp Creek there for years. They weren’t really anxious to have another event there besides Camp Creek and their Harley Rendezvous. But that summer we happened to produce Camp Creek. As we got to know those people, they sort of said, “well, you seem sort of trustworthy, why don’t we give it a shot and do Summit.” It was a little rough around the edges. We all knew that the people involved in the venue were great people but they had a different lifestyle. They were a bunch of bikers and we a bunch of hippies —- it took a little getting used to. We sort of had to weed through our crew and their crew and find the best people. And every year we sort of defined it a little bit more. 2003 was a turning point. Obviously time was an important factor, but the Allman Brothers are probably the greatest common denominator between bikers and hippies. There is an old saying that bikers are just hippies in leather. It became apparent that we all shared some of the same values and we become a community. Until then, we were sort of guests on their property and they were protecting themselves —- us and our people. As I said they are a little rough around the edges but I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be protecting our interests.
MG- Do you have a favorite backstage memory?
KH- Well, this year was kind of neat because I had never had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Jackie and Gloria. A couple of minutes before they went onstage I was sitting with them in the green room and I asked them if they knew the history of Gathering of the Vibes. I told them how New York said no, so we did it ourselves, and how that started it all. It was all about Jerry and his collective community. They gave me a big hug and I told them about the 30-plus times I saw them at the Warfield with JGB. Jackie was like yeah, “We were the house band at the Warfield.” I told them about this one time in ’92 or ’93 when there was just a torrential downpour in the Bay Area and the band goes into “Mission in the Rain.” Jerry looks over at the girls with this big smile and the girls are just gleaming. I had never seen Jerry so happy as when he was playing with his band. I have been to 350-plus Dead shows and had never seen him smile like that. Also, after this year’s show, Donna Jean left a beautiful message on my answering machine—-she was really moved.
BK- In 2001—-the Red Hook year—-I worked for the Jammys which took place the night before the Vibes. So I did the Jammys and drove straight from Roseland Ballroom to the Vibes and started working without any sleep. So at the Vibes the Wailers played and, right in the middle of their set, the first of several hundred rainstorms happened. So they played three songs and got offstage. It was my job to pay them and I ended up settling with Family Man, the bass player on almost every Bob Marley album. I deal with enough people that I don’t normally get star struck —- but it was Family Man! He asked if it was OK if he stayed in the office until it stopped raining. So he rolled a joint for himself and a joint for me. Now over the years I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t smoke at these things—-especially when I was working on three hours of sleep over the course of a week. But I couldn’t pass it up because it was Family Man. I am looking at him, totally freaking out. I take three hits and put it out because I am a lightweight. He is speaking in this real heavy Jamaican accent and I’m struggling to understand what he is saying. So, at the end of the story, I start to laugh, thinking that was the appropriate thing to do and, he was like, “No, no many people died!” I was like, “oh sorry, that’s terrible. I thought you were saying something else.”
Also, in 2002 I was sort of in charge of escorting Phil Lesh around. We were sitting at the organ donation table and he was flipping through the Vibes program. He asked me who he should check out and I suggested Reid since he had great songs—-this is before I managed him or anything. So Phil went to go see Reid and he played this real passionate acoustic set. Phil went to me and said, “After his set, tell him to come back to my trailer.” Now Reid is as big a Deadhead as I am but he is also pretty dazed after his set and goes back stage like nothing happened. But after it hits him, he comes running back and was like, “Phil wants to meet me!” Phil actually had Reid come and play “Friend of the Devil” with him the next week at Jones Beach.