Q&A: Ken Hays
The co-creator of Gathering of the Vibes just can't believe how his baby has grown over 16 years.
Gathering of the Vibes Music Festival, celebrating its 16th anniversary July 21-24 at Bridgeport’s Seaside Park, is more than just music—or so says Weston festival founder KEN HAYS, 47. Keep that in mind as you groove to 40 crack bands, featuring Taj Mahal, “Toots” Hibbert and Levon Helm. For more info, call (203) 908-3030 or visit govibes.com.
What is your background? Are you a musician?
Not exactly. My younger brother, Kevin, is a professional jazz pianist; my grandfather was a violinist. So there are lots of musical genes in the family, but not for me—though I’ve always loved live music and especially the Grateful Dead.
I’ve got a very cool set of parents who, when I was in high school, allowed me to have parties in our basement. They always preferred that my friends and I be in one safe place rather than out on the road, possibly drinking and driving. As long as there was absolutely no alcohol or any funny business going on, and we cleaned up after ourselves and were quiet, it was all good. I guess that’s how my love of throwing parties got started.
In 1983, I was co-chair for the Greenwich High School Homecoming Parade. I was intrigued by the whole process of planning and event coordination, and seeing it come to fruition.
Vibes got off the ground 16 years ago, when you were 31. What did you do professionally before that point?
I was a volunteer EMT in Greenwich for Glenville Volunteer Fire Department, and was really intrigued by emergency medicine. But after I got to the University of Colorado at Boulder I decided there was just no way I was going to be a doctor.
So after finishing up school, about the time of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day , I learned that New Haven had just banned the use of plastic bags at retail locations. The environment is a passion of mine, so I wondered what I could do to help—and I started a company with virtually no money, encouraging a local manufacturer to make environmentally safe shopping bags called Green Bags. Stew Leonard's sold a couple hundred thousand of them, and the Girl and Boy Scouts used them as fund raisers. They did very, very well until we invaded Iraq the first time. At that point, the sales absolutely came to a dead stop. People were more concerned about their kids dying abroad than they were about the environment.
After that came to a halt, I had this idea . . . The Grateful Dead, along with bands like Phish, the Allman Brothers and Metallica—they allow their fans to record their concerts live. I was a big tape trader. When I was out in Colorado, I'd pay ridiculously high prices on blank tapes, then when I came home for summers, I'd go to Canal Street in New York City and pay ridiculously low prices for blank tapes. I decided that nationwide, there had to be a way to help people pay reasonable prices for their blank media, so they could trade live concert tapes.
I started a company in 1991 called Terrapin Tapes, and became a distributor for Sony, Maxell and Panasonic. From the beginning, it took off and I had friends working with us all through Fairfield County. Now our office is in Bridgeport. But when Jerry Garcia died in August 1995 . . . basically the company had been a way to finance my following the Grateful Dead on the road when they toured.
You’re a Deadhead?
I am. After college, I spent a lot of time visiting friends across the country when I followed the Dead. But when Jerry died, everything changed; I realized that there was no way I'd be seeing these people with the same frequency I had when the band was touring eight months out of the year. So we all got together and said, "What are we going to do?" We decided to throw a festival to celebrate Jerry Garcia’s life and the music of the Grateful Dead. In 1996, we organized a beautiful gathering of 3,500 friends and family on the grounds of SUNY Purchase. We called it Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe.
The president of SUNY heard about it only a week before, when he saw a write-up on it in The New York Times. He called the director of the school's performing arts center to interrogate him about it, saying, "Lock everything down; your job is on the line here." There were no problems whatsoever.
The following year we outgrew SUNY Purchase—our number doubled in size—so we moved just a few miles down the road to Croton Point Park in Westchester, N.Y. That was the first year we called it Gathering of the Vibes.
Who would perform at these early festivals?
The first year we had Max Creek, celebrating their 40th anniversary of performing together in Connecticut. We also had moe. and a whole bunch of lesser-known artists. It was kind of the origin for jam bands, well before the term was created. After that, every year we've been able to increase our talent budget.
When did you first come to Bridgeport?
We were in Bridgeport in 1999 and 2000, for two amazing years in Seaside Park. Then the city did a massive renovation—hydroseeding 80 acres of grass and putting in an incredible amount of infrastructure along this beautiful 370-acre park, which was donated to the city by P.T. Barnum when he was mayor in 1875. The stipulation that Barnum had was that the park be used for recreational activities and musical performances.
Then we went back to upstate New York for six years, returning to Seaside Park in 2007—in 2008, we signed a five-year contract with the park to keep the event in Bridgeport through the summer of 2012.
So, what would you say was the first really banner year for the event, in terms of the artists who performed and the size of it?
In 1999, we had about 10,000 people in Seaside Park; in 2000 about 15,000. Then when we moved to upstate New York—Duchess County—we had our largest gathering, around 28,000-30,000 people. You know, that was not a pleasurable experience. Financially it was nice, but you lose the intimacy. We'd always been really focused on encouraging families to bring their kids, and we'd always had kids activities. We have this Kids' Corner that was just developing and blossoming into a beautiful experience. These days, parents and kids—especially teenagers—have very little to bond through. For me, it had been going to Shea Stadium with my dad.
So what we had used to be just a kids' corner, where kids could get their faces painted, but as the years progressed, we've gotten a stage in there and have developed a number of different teen activities . . . musical instruction and the like. That's something that we're very proud of—last year we had just about 2200 kids under the age of 15 come with their parents. Now what we have is a Kids' Village with the Teen Scene right next to it.
So, how many people are you expecting this year?
Last year, we welcomed about 20,000 people per day; so far, ticket sales for this year are up considerably from that. And the number of families that are coming is up significantly. I'm optimistic that our campgrounds will sell out well in advance, and we now have the ability to bring in close to 15,000 on shuttle buses. And with the Arena at Harbor Yard and the Bridgeport Bluefish Stadium having tons of parking, and the city offering us its municipal lots—within a mile we have enough parking for 15,000. Our shuttle system can cover local hotels, the train and bus stations and even the Port Authority. We definitely encourage people to use mass transit. I feel like we have a really good model in place, and a lineup of talent this year that people seem to be thrilled about. I know I am.
What artists are you most excited about hosting?
For me, to have Elvis Costello—and Perry Farrell—perform for the first time is a coup. Perry was the creator of Lollapalooza, so to have him here with Jane’s Addiction is very exciting. I’ve been a fan of Elvis Costello’s music for years. A couple of months ago he sat in with Furthur—Bob Weir’s and Phil Lesh’s band—in New York City. Billboard asked him about Vibes and he said, “Any event that embraces the spirit of the Grateful Dead in the former home of P.T. Barnum has got my vote.”
How long have the surviving members of the Grateful Dead been part of this?
Bob Weir—with his band Ratdog—was the first member of the Grateful Dead to perform at Vibes, back in Seaside Park in 2000. Phil Lesh joined us in 2002. This is the second year that Furthur will be with us.
And of course, you have Wavy Gravy on board.
We do indeed. Wavy's been with us since 2002. I don't think I've ever met anyone with such a kind soul. The spectrum of his experiences is just overwhelming. It's an honor to have him MC with us.
We had a loss in our vibes family this year. Wavy's co-MC and our long-time friend Michael Potashnick passed away in January of this year. So Bob Kennedy of Stamford—he and I really started Gathering of the Vibes together—will be filling the shoes of Mike P. and making sure his spirit remains alive and well in us.
Tell us about The Late Night Throwdown.
If kids aren’t ready to go to sleep after the headliners finish, we have a late-night stage that goes until 3 a.m. or so. On Thursday, we’ll feature The New Mastersounds; on Friday, Big Gigantic; and on Saturday, Perpetual Groove—all three have kind of a funk, techno, electronica groove. In addition, we’ll show movies in our cinema area.
You're also going to have something called The Jam Tram . . .
Because Metro North's last train out runs around 12:45 a.m., we have buses that will be taking people out of Seaside Park and dropping them off at Grand Central Station, Penn Station and I think the Port Authority as well. It leaves at 3:30 a.m., after the late night music ends.
. . . and there are new ticket options as well.
It's the first year we've done a single-day V.I.P. pass. We've always done a weekend pass. We just figured, why not, we'll give this a shot, and people were very excited about it. Friday is now sold out, Saturday nearly, and the weekend V.I.P. passes are about 300 tickets away from selling out. They give you meals, access to a special viewing platform with couches. It's just a great way to get off your feet, sit down and get out of the elements for awhile. There's also V.I.P. parking with special access in to the event. Regular tickets for Friday are $75 in advance; V.I.P. tix are $150.
What is the Sustainability Village?
That’s our way of shedding light on what we all can do in our daily lives to help not only the environment—including becoming educated about alternative sources of energy—but also our local nonprofit initiatives. Last year, our attendees donated more than 5,500 pounds of nonperishable food items for Connecticut food pantries. The Yale University Environmental Studies Program has gotten involved; professors come down and talk about where we are in the research and development of solar power, for instance. They also talk about the upside and downside of coal and nuclear power, all the sources currently out there and available.
Your vendors offer some really nice stuff.
They do! We hand pick all our food and craft vendors. There's an artisans village where kids can make things with pottery wheels, access a whole bunch of interactive, informative and engaging activities. This year we have a couple of sponsors who have come on board . . . if kids aren't interested in singing or playing guitar, but are interested in the technology behind live music, say, these sponsors are bringing in soundboards and lighting consoles and offering instruction. Our range of kids activities has really evolved over the years. we're really trying to engage kids any way we can in areas they may be passionate about, or are just finding out about for the first time. For younger kids, we have everything from face painting to performances by Andy the Music Man.
What has this event come to mean to you? Why is it important?
Here's something you may not know: After Jerry Garcia died, the Grateful Dead had a memorial for him in Golden Gate Park. Then the Dead's management went to Mayor Guiliani to ask if they could have a similar memorial in Central Park, and Guiliani said no because of the coat that would be incurred for fire, police, emergency service, park cleanup . . . So that was at the point where we said, we've got to do it ourselves.
It's a tough question. For me, I take great pride in not only the programming—the nuts and bolts are easy—but that my family comes every year, and their friends, and their friends' friends. And that I can out over 20,000 people and see all the smiling faces, and all the passion our staff of 1,500 has for the event. It comes from the heart. and it's good for Bridgeport and the state—last year we spent $1.7 million on local businesses, not even counting the eight hotels we sell out every year and all the money our attendees spend.Q&A: Ken Hays