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An aerial view of the festival. Photo courtesy of Gathering of the Vibes.

An aerial view of the festival. Photo courtesy of Gathering of the Vibes.

The 19th edition of the Gathering of the Vibes music festival is back for another summer at its much-loved home, Seaside Park in Bridgeport. The festival, which takes place July 31-August 2, will close out its teenage years with co-headliners John Fogerty, Widespread Panic, and Disco Biscuits featuring former Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann among 49 other bands. Gathering of the Vibes founder Ken Hays checked in to talk about this year’s festival and to take stock of the past 19 years.

Ken Hays. Photo courtesy of Gathering of the Vibes

Ken Hays. Photo courtesy of Gathering of the Vibes

What’s the special about the venue?

It is a beautifully manicured 300-acre waterfront park with over a mile and a half of beach. It truly is one of Bridgeport’s gems. There’s something about the water that lets the everyday stresses in our lives just wash away. That’s how the water works for me. (It’s) why 85 percent of Vibes attendees come back every year. It’s not only for the music but it’s an annual reunion with friends and family. And to gather in such a beautiful space, hopefully with some nice, warm 80-degree weather, it changes the vibe. It’s tough to be in a bad mood when thousands of people around you are smiling.

What do you know now about running a music festival that you didn’t when you first started?

When we first started 19 years ago, there wasn’t the incredible competition in the marketplace. Every weekend in the Northeast throughout the summer there is a major music festival. It’s become more and more challenging to book the bands because (of) contractual clauses with other festivals. When we started this as “Deadhead Heaven” in 1996 after the death of Jerry Garcia, it was an opportunity for the deadhead community to gather. But it’s not a festival that’s driven by the Grateful Dead. (We’ve had) James Brown and the Harlem Gospel Choir, all different genres of music – bluegrass, funk, and folk.

GOTV2014_LogoWhere are people coming from? 

The average drive for attendees was just about four hours, with 700 people flying in from all over the world. Four hundred people came from California last year. There’s no better place for a transit hub than Bridgeport. People enjoy the easy access.

How do you go about booking the festival? Do bands reach out to you? How does that work?

There are bands that come back every year. But it’s important to switch it up and bring in fresh blood. This we received 2,600 band submissions for 52 spots. It’s challenging in that sense for the up-and coming bands to get up on the stage but when they do it’s amazing to see them. A great example would be the McLovins, who are from Connecticut. Twiddle, they started out a couple of years ago in their garage with 50 people watching them in small bars and now they are performing on the main stage at Vibes.

Do fans have any input to booking?

Oh, yes. We do a survey every year ask them which band they’d like to see return. The Vibe Tribe are really emotionally invested and they are passionate about it.

During the festival, do you ever get a chance to enjoy some music?

Every year I enjoy it more and more. Early on I’d be out there assisting parking cars – I’m pretty hands on. But we have an amazing team and there’s an incredible group of people around me.

Was there a moment at a past festival where it all coalesced and you thought, “This is really something”?

It was right from the beginning at SUNY Purchase, when 3,500 people showed up and it was a beautiful weekend with friends and family and good music. We said, “We have to continue this.”

Is there a past performance that really sticks out for you where you really had your doors blown off?

In 2011 Elvis Costello performed on a beautiful Saturday night and then into Jane’s Addiction. That was an extraordinary four hours of music.

Article by Stephen Chupaska. This story appears in the July/August issue of The Arts Paper. Read or download the entire paper online here