Enjoy the vibes at laid-back festival
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
Gathering of the Vibes
Seaside Park, Bridgeport, Conn.
July 23 -- 26
Weekend pass: $185 in advance; single day, $60 in advance
VIP packages available
For further information, call (203) 908-3030
Peace signs and love beads may be missing but the 14th annual, three-day-long Gathering of the Vibes celebration of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock Music and Art Festival builds on the communal spirit that made the 1969 festival such a history-making event.
"Woodstock was such an extraordinary event," Ken Hays, founder and executive director of Gathering of the Vibes (GOTV), said, "and so much has changed in 40 years. But, that sense of community, that sense of all being in it together, whether it's a thunder storm or a beautiful, sunny day, has remained constant."
The sense of community at GOTV, presented at Bridgeport, Connecticut's Seaside Park from July 23 through 26, is reflected by the increasing number of youngsters who attend the festival.
"So many attendees bring their whole family," Hays said. "Last year, almost 2,000 kids, under the age of 15, came with their parents. That's a testament to how well the GOTV is doing - to have a comfort zone where people could bring their kids and camp out on the banks of the Long Island Sound for a weekend."
With a return visit from the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and his band, Ratdog, and the debut appearances by the Band's Levon Helm, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the music sensibilities of the Woodstock Festival continue to reverberate through the GOTV. "There's a sense of coming full circle," Hays said, "of turning a new leaf, clearing the slate and starting fresh."
The performers on the main stage represent a mix of veteran musicians, including bluesman Buddy Guy and the original "funk-meister," George Clinton, with the Parliament Funkadelics, and younger, up-and-coming artists including jam bands (Assembly of Dust, Guster and J.J. Grey and Mofro), funk groups (Lettuce and Deep Banana Blackout) and reggae bands (John Brown's Body).
"We've really tried to highlight the old school/new school mentality," Hays said. "We want to arrange for a place where older musicians teach the kids how things were done back in their day and, then, the younger musicians show the old school musicians how they're doing it today. It breaks down the barriers."
A smaller stage, called the "Solar Stage" last year, has been renamed the "Green Vibes Stage."
"The research and technology is simply not there on a technical, production level," he explained, to guarantee that the there would be sufficient solar power for the whole weekend. "It's important to be absolutely honest and up-front with everybody that there are limitations to solar technology. But, within the Green Vibes Stage area, there'll be lots of not-for-profit organizations and demonstrations of what we could do on an individual level to be a part of the solution will be presented."
Initially conducted in August of 1995, the GOTV (originally named "Dead Head Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribes") was inspired by a memorial concert in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park following the passing of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. When the Grateful Dead's management approached the city of New York, however, seeking to stage a similar memorial in Central Park, their request was turned down.
"[New York] was in a pretty hard financial position," Hays recalled, who had attended hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts and had run Terrapin Tapes, a media distribution outlet for live concert tapers and traders, "and they couldn't afford to pay for the municipal [police, fire, EMS, cleanup]."
Determined to create "an opportunity to bring our friends together on an annual basis to enjoy each other's company," Hays sought an appropriate venue. He found it on the campus of the State University of New York in Purchase, N.Y. "I met with the director of the performing arts center," he remembered, "and told him that I wanted to put on a music and camping festival. He was receptive."
The first gathering, which took place on Memorial Day weekend 1996, drew 3,500 people. "We knew that we were doing something incredibly meaningful to many thousands of people," Hays said.
Relocating to Croton Point Park, in Croton-On-Hudson, N.Y., a year later, the event (renamed the Gathering of the Vibes) doubled in size. Though it found its current home in Seaside Park in 1999, restorations to the park forced it to find other temporary locations before returning in 2008.
The GOTV's connection with the Grateful Dead culminated with the first appearance of Bobby Weir and Ratdog in 2000. "Bobby understood what we were doing," Hays said, "that we were keeping the torch alive for fans of the Grateful Dead and providing a place for them to come together. The fact that he wanted to play GOTV was incredibly meaningful to us. It was a heart-warming feeling when he accepted our offer."
Since then, all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have appeared at the festival. "Phil Lesh was with us in 2008," Hays said. "Bill Kreutzmann played for us a couple of years, as has Mickey Hart. Donna Jean Godchaux, who sang with the Dead in the 1970s, will be there this year."
The diversity that infused the Grateful Dead's music remains the foundation for the GOTV.
"Jerry [Garcia] loved so many different kinds of music," Hays said. "He started with bluegrass. Phil Lesh was classically trained. We try to touch on every musical genre, from reggae to blues to straight-up rock and roll to gospel. We're having a Sunday morning gospel session with the Harlem Gospel Choir, which will take place right after we have a flag ceremony conducted by the World Peace Sanctuary."
Attracting between 20,000 to 30,000 people over four days, the GOTV has reached, according to Hays, its maximum size.
"Once you exceed that," he said, "you lose the sense of intimacy. People have to walk further to get to the stages. You lose eye-to-eye contact and you get into a large crowd mentality. We don't want to increase the number of attendees, we want to increase the overall 'Vibes' experience for those who join us."