An Interview with Ken Hays, Gatherer of the Vibes
Ken Hays is a man with a mission, a mission to spread good vibes, share progressive ideas and philosophies, and remind all people what it is to be human. For 19 years, Hays has put on Gathering of the Vibes (formerly known as Dead Head Heaven), first bringing music and positive vibes, and over the years, adding many more layers to match the depth of its community, hosting a non-profit village, an extensive green initiative program, activities for kids and their families, etc. all in the wake of nature at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT.
Sensible Reason had the pleasure of picking Hays’ brain. The founder of the vibes gave us insight on his vision for vibes and its community, his passion for non-profit organizations and social change, the music (of course), and all of the reasons Vibes is such a remarkable and impactful place.
Sensible Reason: With your lineup selection, you do a really great job of mixing old and new music. I’m especially interested in how you choose new artists, since their followings tend to be much smaller.
KH: We’ve got an amazing team of college interns that are certainly not afraid to put a whole bunch of music that they’re listening to and up-and-coming bands in our inboxes, and we check them out. We’ve gotten around 2,500 band submissions for 2014, and it’s difficult to choose, because there is a lot of incredible talent out there. I’ll get ten of my closest friends together with a bottle of Patron when the snow is falling and we’ll brainstorm ideas together, and then we’ll contact the booking agent, see if the band’s touring and if their tour routes into Connecticut, and if so, we lock it in.
SR: When I look back at past lineups, there tends to be at least one wild card, someone unexpected, how do you go about choosing that artist? Is it sort of like, “You know, this is different, but people will react to it, so let’s do it!”?
KH: I think a good example of that would be Jane’s Addiction when they played Vibes in 2011. Ya know, we’ve got to mix it up and keep it fresh and exciting.
SR: I think, on the outside, Vibes can come off as strictly a jam festival, but it really does have many more layers to it, which I think makes it stand out.
KH: Yeah! This year we have the Disco Biscuits, featuring Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzman of the Grateful Dead, and Lotus performing their interpretation of the Talking Heads on Friday night after John Fogerty. It’s those one-time musical experiences that we strive for that we as music lovers, and the VibeTribe as well, really get off on.
SR: So speaking of the VibeTribe… Vibes has been in Bridgeport for years. How are the surrounding residents and communities connected with the festival? How have you seen that relationship change over the years?
KH: We were in Seaside Park in ’99 and ’00, and then the city did a major renovation, so we went to upstate New York, then came back home in 2007. And it’s been incredibly well-received by the city and by its residents. We offer a discount for Bridgeport residents, and I think it’s a win-win, for Bridgeport residents, for the city, and for us. I think it’s a good thing for Bridgeport, and giving back in terms of donating money to build a splash pad for the kids… There’s a lot of neat stuff that we do with Gathering of the Vibes operations and non-profits – giving back is super important to us.
SR: On the note of giving back, social consciousness is clearly a really big part of Vibes – you have the non-profit village with organizations from Oxfam to the ACLU to HeadCount… How did you bring that together, and do you think it’s helped bring the Vibes community closer together?
KH: I’m passionate, always have been, about supporting non-profit organizations. I’m on the board of directors for HeadCount.org, and to date we’ve registered over 300,000 people, mostly kids, at concerts and festivals.
SR: That’s an impressive number
KH: Well, it’s at a time when our government is broken. I think this isn’t the time for people to sit back, be disenfranchised, and feel like their vote and their voice doesn’t count. It counts the most right now. If you look at voting as the better of the two evils, then get out there. It’s not difficult to find out where the candidate stands in regards to some of the hot ticket items now, like gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, immigration… We’ve got to be part of the solution, and the only way to really do that is to really engage and have your voice be heard.
SR: Totally. At some point you kind of have to cooperate with the system you’re given in order to make a difference and work toward changing that system.
SR: I think festivals are a really powerful platform for fostering ideas of social, political, environmental, etc. change – if there is a true community established there. What do you think it is about Vibes that allows these ideas of change to develop and grow? Have you seen it change over the years and become a more effective means to communicate ideas?
KH: I think it is! I think whenever you bring a group of like-minded individuals together to discuss social and political issues, and what we can do in our every day lives to, again, be part of the solution, whether it be donating time to volunteer or donating money, as the local, state, and federal government have radically slashed the budgets for some of these essential services, you realize we’ve got to step up and support those who really are in need.
SR: You guys do a donation drive at the festival, don’t you?
KH: We do. Last year the Vibes attendees packed up into their cars, and dropped off and donated a couple thousand pounds of non-perishable items, an enormous amount of goods that can be distributed to those who are in need. That’s just an indication of the community and the caring that the VibeTribe have and come to the table with.
SR: It’s really fantastic. I think creating this type of community is much more rare than people really realize. Festivals have multiplied all over the country, and you could go to one every weekend if you wanted. The fact that you’ve expanded yours from a music experience to a full-on social experience is impressive and uncommon.
KH: That’s what it’s about. It’s about art forms and benevolence on every level.
SR: You’ve been doing this for a long time so I’m curious what you think about the explosion of music festivals across the country. How do you think the growth of the festival scene has really affected the music scene and the industry overall?
KH: You know, whenever we can get a group to gather, peacefully, I think it’s a positive thing. There are certainly logistical issues that come with large music festival gatherings, but if those who are in charge of the festival are, number one, looking out for everybody’s safety, and two, are trying to spread a message of love, joy, and positivity, then it’s a good thing… You know, we look at the papers every day or watch CNN and hear of all this catastrophic negativity; if we can turn that off for a couple days, hit the reset button, go hang out with friends a family, and really focus on what’s truly important, I think it can only be a positive thing.
SR: When did you realize that Vibes had so much potential to become something much bigger than when you started it?
KH: I guess during the first one, during Deadhead Heaven, back in ’96: 3,500 smiling faces, with hugs all around, just a beautiful weekend of community. It was clear right from the start that, as long as we could break even or make a couple dollars, we’d love to continue throwing a party. That was really the origin of it all [laughs]; there was never a master plan. It very much happened organically.
SR: It very much seems that way.
KH: We started it in 1996, in honor of Jerry Garcia, then in 2007, we changed the name from Deadhead Heaven to Gathering of the Vibes.
SR: So I’m sure you went to a LOT of Dead shows over the years then…
KH: 350+ shows, yeah.
SR: Wow. Do you remember your first show?
KH: I remember exactly where I was sitting. It was at the Brendan Byrne Arena in ’85, November of ’85. And when Jerry died, we realized there was no chance that the Dead would continue, so we wanted to have a gathering place that people could come to annually to celebrate the life of Jerry, the music of the Grateful Dead, and more! Jerry loved all music. His greatest love was bluegrass, but he also loved gospel and blues, so we keep that in mind when programming the artists on the stages, while at the same time continuing to move forward and evolve and make sure we’re giving the VibeTribe what they’re looking for.
SR: Who are you most excited to see off the lineup this year?
KH: John Fogerty is one of my favorite artists. His song writing is incredible, his vocals and guitar are incredible, and his back up band rocks. He’s been playing a lot of Creedence songs, so I’m excited about that. Widespread, the Biscuits with Billy and Mickey… I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time this year in front of the stage than I ever have.
SR: That’s great! I thought Stanley Jordan was a pretty interesting selection for the Artist at Large. How did you end up choosing him?
KH: He’s just a phenomenal guitarist. The guy oozes talent.
SR: To be honest with you, I had never heard of Stanley Jordan so when I saw him added the other week, I looked him up…
KH: If you haven’t really checked him out yet, Google him, and you’ll see some amazing music.
SR: I watched a video of him covering “Stairway to Heaven,” and I was sold. He’s a beautiful guitar player. I was blown away.
KH: Okay, then you get it! He’s soulful, an amazing talent.
SR: Really, great choice! Anyway, I want to be respectful of your time – thank you so much for taking the time to chat today – it’s been a pleasure. I can’t wait for Vibes!
KH: Outstanding. Thank you! See you in a couple weeks!