From The Archives: What Would Bill Graham Do? Vibing It Out With Ken Hays
As Gathering of the Vibes kicks off today in Bridgeport, we revisit this conversation with founder from Ken Hays, which originally ran in 2007 after the event returned to its current location at Seaside Park in Bridgeport.
Ken Hays is a man dedicated to preserving the community of the Grateful Dead. In 1995 when New York City’s Mayor Giuliani denied a public gathering in Central Park commemorating the legacy of Jerry Garcia, Ken brought 3,500 people to SUNY Purchase to celebrate with music. Following that initial celebration of the life of Garcia, Ken’s Gathering of the Vibes has grown to encapsulate the ever-expanding world and community of the Grateful Dead. From trading tapes on Dead tour to throwing the East Coast’s most celebrated festival, here Ken reflects on past challenges, the Vibes return to Seaside Park and genuine American Beauty.
JH: So this is the 12th anniversary of GOTV. As you look back, how does it feel?
KH: It feels great! Twelve years ago if you said that I’d planning a party for twenty thousand of my closest friends I’d say you’re insane. It has been an incredible ride. Incredibly challenging, but totally rewarding at the same time.
JH: Did you think you’d make it this far?
KH: There’s a phrase that we use in the offices that goes, “We’re pretty much winging this thing!” Every year is a challenge. I never thought that I’d be in the position of doing what I like to do for so long.
JH: Where’d you come up with the idea to do a James Brown tribute night?
KH: Well I’ve got a picture on my desk from backstage at the Vibes in 2003 of my sister, my niece, my nephew and Mr. Brown. He was a pleasure to work with. When we had him in 2003 I felt great for the kids out there that they were able to experience him in his full glory. We’ve got George Clinton and Deep Banana that will be doing some fun stuff and a lot of special guests that will be sitting in, showing their respect, and celebrating his music.
JH: GOTV has moved around the Northeast and been held at several different sites. What brought it back to Bridgeport, CT?
KH: We had always intended to after Vibes 2000. We had just about 10,000 at the Vibes in 99 at Seaside Park in Bridgeport. In 2000 we had around 15,000 people. In the Fall of 2000 the city started work on a master beautification project in the park and put $10 million into it and hydro-seeded 80 acres of grass. It typically takes around 5 years for the ground to settle and the grass to take firm hold so we can park with camped cars on the field without doing damage. Now six years later we can return.
JH: Where’d you get your start in the music business and how did you become involved in festival production?
KH: Our first show was moe. and MMW at the Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY. That was our first step trying out the waters. That was during the Terrapin Tapes days. It seemed like a fun thing to throw a party for some friends. That was where it all began.
JH: So you booked a moe. show which eventually evolved into GOTV?
KH: Indeed. Well.the GOTV started after Jerry died. Giuliani said no to a gathering in Central Park similar to the couple hundred thousand that gathered in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The Mayor couldn’t put up the cash to cover police, fire, EMS expenses and to cover the amount of people that would be in Central Park. So the folks from Dupree’s Diamond News, myself, and Bob Kennedy got together and said. “Let’s do it!” We went to SUNY Purchase College and called it Dead Head Heaven: The Gathering of the Tribe. We had 3,500 people. moe. headlined along with Max Creek. It was an amazing experience.
JH: I didn’t realize that this started as a reaction to Jerry’s death.
KH: Absolutely. This was about celebrating Jerry’s life, the music of the Dead, and how we all collectively as the Deadhead community could move forward together.
JH: How do you move forward together as the Deadhead community?
KH: How do we move forward together as a community? I don’t think it has been anything that has honestly been planned. It has evolved, it has mutated, it has become its own living, breathing entity. It’s very similar to the Grateful Dead which is try to keep it loose but try to keep it tight at the same time and don’t be afraid to change. Just grow and just do what seems right in your mind and your soul and try and do everything you can to keep everyone happy and together as a cohesive group of likeminded individuals caring for their kids and their families and their extended families. When you have common values as a community I think it’s almost magnetic. People want to hang out with like minded friends. It has progressed by its own design.
JH: GOTV has always been traditionally Grateful Dead-oriented. What’s your history with the Dead?
KH: I started Terrapin Tapes in Spring Tour 1991. I was handing out flyers. I had this idea when I went to school in CO when I was doing a lot of tape trading and paying ridiculous prices for Maxell XL II’s. I came back home to Connecticut that summer and would drive into the city and go to Uncle Steve’s and buy XL II 90’s for a great price and figured there had to be a way for everyone in the country to trade their analog cassette tapes and send them out in the mail to the post office but they could get their price at a lower price than going to the store and purchasing them. That was the origin which allowed me to go out on tour and sell Deadbases and hand out flyers about Terrapin Tapes. My friends at home were answering the phones and packing out boxes of tapes and filling out the UPS forms and shipping it out. That’s how Terrapin Tapes began.
JH: When did you first start seeing the Dead?
KH: My first show was 11-10-85. And then I pretty much toured from 1990 on. I did around 370 shows or so.
JH: Was there anything that hit you at your first show?
KH: Oh absolutely. Musically, having listened to American Beauty over and over again[Choking up] It was eye opening. It was the first musical experience that really took hold of me. It inspired me. I don’t listen to enough Dead these days now that we’re working 16 hour days. But it really, truly opened my eyes.
JH: What act are you most excited to see this year?
KH: I get a kick out of being able to turn the Vibe Tribe onto old school artists. The kids that have never seen a James Brown or a Buddy Guy or some of these legendary artists – to give them the experience is incredibly meaningful. For me, Buddy is the man. Bobby coming back and joining us along with Mickey, I feel really good about the way this year’s lineup came about. For Sunday for example, I actually have my younger brother Kevin who is an accomplished jazz artist he has played with Sonny Rollins and Joshua Redman and toured with John Scofield for a number of yearssome pretty heavy hitting jazz folks. On Sunday he’s going to kick off the day then we’re going to do the Mardi Gras parade with Dirty Dozen, and then Martin Sexton, the Wailers, Buddy Guy, and then the festival closes on Sunday night with Los Lobos. It’s an incredibly diverse day of music in the park. I’m looking forward to that full day and having my brother back on the bill is nice because he hasn’t played here in ten years.