Running with Garcia: A Look at Gathering of the Vibes
At a time when many festivals seem to favor eclecticism over community, Gathering of the Vibes stands strong as the Northeast’s definitive jamband gathering. Growing out of the Jerry Garcia tribute Deadhead Heaven in 1996, Vibes has attracted each and every surviving member of the Grateful Dead over the past decade and served as a launching pad for jamband stalwarts like like moe., Deep Banana Blackout, the Disco Biscuits, Assembly of Dust, Strangefolk, Gov’t Mule and the Zen Tricksters.
Gathering of the Vibes will return to its home at Bridgeport, CT’s Seaside Park from July 31-August 3. This year’s line-up features Phil Lesh & Friends, The Black Crowes, the Neville Brothers, Taj Mahal Trio, Umphrey’s McGee, Zappa plays Zappa, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Mike Gordon, Bill Kreutzmann Trio, New Riders of The Purple Sage, Deep Banana Blackout, Assembly of Dust, Donna Jean & The Tricksters and Strangefolk, among others. Below, festival founder Ken Hays discusses this year’s lineup, next year’s goals and how he ended up running with Jerry Garcia.
MG- Let’s start with some good news. I hear you’ve made a deal to keep the Vibes at Bridgeport, CT’s Seaside Park for a few years.
KH- We are going to be in Bridgeport through the summer of 2012, which is without question the longest we’ve been at any location. It’s greatI’m 15 minutes from home and we have our office in Bridgeport now, so it is great to be close to the whole thing.
MG- For some readers who may not be as familiar with the process of putting together a festival, can you walk us through the booking process? Who was the first act you approached to play this year’s Vibes?
KH- Phil Lesh. It is has been six years since Phil joined us in 2002. We’ve had Bobby for the last few years [2005-2007] and that’s been great. But I think both the Weir camp and the Vibes felt like we should take a year off and see what we can do next year to keep it special. Phil was excited to come back and the Neville Brothers were another band we approached early on. We are really excited to have them for the first time and to have Derek & Susan and all these guys. Bob [Kennedy] and I started planning in October We started digging right in about a month or so after the Vibes last year. It goes round and round.
MG- So on the flip side, is there a young or emerging band you are particularly excited to have on this year’s bill?
KH- The Alternate Routes. They are actually from Bridgeport and are touring the country doing really, really well. I think they have enormous potential. Bob Kennedy knows them really well. Zappa Plays Zappa was also something I was blown away with. I have never been a huge Zappa Freak, but listening to some of the stuff has opened my eyes. This is also the first time Umphrey’s has been with us. In other years the routing didn’t work or whatever, but I have been a fan for a long time. For one reason or another, the stars didn’t align until this year.
MG- How do you approach the festival’s scheduling each day? At times it must feel like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.
KH- The way we approach the scheduling is with a blank slate and then we try to envision what the fans will like to hear at what point during the weekend, like Grateful Dead music or Dark Star Orchestra music when they are first setting up. That’s what separates Vibes from other festivals: Our core fans are fans of the Grateful Dead and I hope that never changes. This is who we are and this is the music that we love and continue to listen to. We kind of try to put ourselves into the total musical experience of the attendee everyday. What works well in the morning and what doesn’t. I remember back in 1999 we didn’t have the years of experience to see that the Disco Biscuits might not be the best thing to put on at 1 PM [laughter]. That kind of thing. So we try to think about what works well and try to make all the pieces fit. Sometimes you have to squeeze them a little harder and sometimes they fit in beautifully.
MG- Speaking of the Grateful Dead, at this point you’ve had all the surviving members of the group play Gathering of the Vibes, from Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann to Tom Constanten, Donna Jean Godchaux and Bruce Hornsby. Do you have a favorite Grateful Dead memory from a past Vibes?
KH- Yeah, the first time a member of the Grateful Dead stood on our stage was hugely meaningful to me. It was in 2000 and Bob Weir played and I was sitting up on stage left with Dennis McNally. I got a radio call during RatDog’s set and I told Dennis I’d be back in a minute, but he said, “make sure you are back within five minutes.” I didn’t understand what it was about, but the next tune RatDog went into was “Terrapin.” He said he had spoken with Bobby and looked at the setlist and said, “You might want to throw a Terrapin’ in there. And not just because the guys at Terrapin Tapes are cutting your check, but rather because this is the Terrapin-Vibes community and they know how meaningful a Terrapin’ is and Bobby just blew the lid off it.” It was beautiful. Even on tape he nailed it, so that was incredible and meaningful.
MG- Did you ever have a chance to meet Jerry Garcia?
KH- I did. Spring tour 1995 in Birmingham, AL. I used to go down to the hotel gym and hop on the treadmill when I was on tour back in those days to clear out my lungs. Jerry was in there on the treadmill running and there were two treadmills in this little room. I had my tie-dye on, saw him and gave him this little nod. So we kind of ran on the treadmill side by side for a few minutes before he got off the treadmill [laughter]. I didn’t say a word to him, but we worked out together.
MG- In all honesty, I think more people can say they’ve played with Jerry than worked out with him [laughter].
KH- He was digging it, man. He was sweating it, working it [laughter]. So that’s my meeting Garcia and that was at the end, right before he passed.
MG- Bringing things back to Vibes, after successful events in Bridgeport in 1999 and 2000, why did you decide to relocate the festival in the first place?
KH- They did these monster park renovations. What was just piles of dirt and non-developed parkland they completely renovated and hydro-seeded with 80 acres of grass to create these baseball diamonds, soccer fields and a concession area. But, we had to leave in the fall of 2000 because it takes five years, basically, for them to settle the ground so people can drive in and camp. We didn’t want to damage this beautiful, brand new multi-million dollar field. So we headed up north to Red Hook and then Indian Lookout.
MG- Two of this year’s marquee acts, the Bill Kreutzmann Trio and the Mike Gordon Band, feature Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski. He’s actually been with the Vibes since the beginning, correct?
KH- I haven’t seen him with Kreutzmann, but I’ve heard tapes and they shred. Scott has been with us from the beginning, absolutely. Max Creek and moe. headlined the first Vibes, Deadhead Heaven in 1996. It all comes around in some weird fashion.
MG- Is there any act you haven’t had at Vibes that you’d do anything to bring to the festival next year?
KH- My appetite is more than I can afford. To bring a Neil Young or someone.it is a long list. It would be amazing to bring Neil to the Vibes. But it is about that perfect number and something tells me that if we have Neil there we are going to need more parking [laughter].
MG- Can you talk a bit about this year’s environmental efforts?
KH- Like every festival this year, environmental awareness is important, but what we are doing here is a little different. We have this Solar Stage and what is unique about it is that it is not just solar-driven, but also wind turbine-driven. But, at the same time, we have these folks coming from around the country and we have asked them to give us a recap and lesson on our energy sources. Also, they are going to project where we are going to be energy-wise tomorrow.
If you look at wind power, for example, things are different now than they were a few years ago. We are able to harness so much more wind power today than five years ago, but we can’t say the same about solar power. But, five years from now maybe there will be a breakthrough. So, hopefully, five years from now we will know the real benefits when it comes to things like wind credits and carbon offsets. It is like an old AT&T bill and you don’t know what charges are for what [laughter]. Finally, you just quit and say, “How much should I pay?” So our job here is to educate people and break it down so it is truthful and informative and can make a positive impact on our world.
A lot of people are getting really, really rich on this whole green thing. Some CEOs are pulling in millions of dollars because of it. We need to take a step back and understand what is real and what is a sales pitch. There is some real stuff, but also some shadiness.
MG- As a promoter, what would you say is your biggest challenge?
KH- To try to find that right balance, in terms of ticket numbers and attendance. We can’t have too many people and we can’t have too few people or we can’t play the bills. So then we play the intimacy card as well. Something that I loved about last year was that we had 650 kids under the age of 12. They came with mom and dad and hung out in our Kids Corner and Teen Scene areas and they weren’t even born when we had the first Gathering of the Vibes. We now have had to cap our family camping area so it stays safe and manageable for the kids. Last year was a good point for us and, based on our projections, we are going to have even more kids this year. So we have to get a bigger tent for the kids, a bigger backline and more musicians to give them instructions. We let them put together their own bands and it is incredibly educational and fun for this year’s teens. Kids who are younger can also get their faces painted.
I met a family at Phil and Levon [Helm] at Jones Beach last week. It was an 18-year-old daughter, a 45-year-old mother and her mom, who is probably 75. They come to Vibes every year and it is the ultimate family reunion. I say it every year, but if we can continue with that vibe and make sure it is a positive experience across the generations, we are on the right path.
MG- I’m sure a band like Umphrey’s will help draw in some new, younger fans as well.
KH- Umphrey’s and the Neville Brothers, back to back, is the ultimate. The kids ask their parents buy them a ticket to the Vibes to see Umphrey’s and their moms say, “alright, but you have to take me for the Neville Brothers [laughter].” It was the same thing last year with Wailers and Buddy Guy. There is something for everyone here. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but I hope we can continue for a long time
_Mike Greenhaus blogs at www.greenhauseffect.com.