Gathering of the Vibes founder promotes 'family-friendly' festival

Event opens Thursday; reduced admission Sunday for Connecticut families

Founder Ken Hays is highlighting family activities as the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park returns July 25-28. (Gathering of the Vibes Photo)

Founder Ken Hays is highlighting family activities as the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park returns July 25-28. (Gathering of the Vibes Photo)

There are four things that Ken Hays, founder and owner of Gathering of the Vibes, wants people to remember to take to his music, arts and camping festival this year: a bathing suit, a smile, good vibes — and your children.

Hays said that Gathering of the Vibes — now in its 18th year — is misidentified as a “hippie festival.”

“It’s not,” Hays said. “The average age is 35 to 40 years old.”

Ken Hays founded Gathering of the Vibes, a four-day festival featuring numerous bands and other activities. (Gathering of the Vibes Photo)

Ken Hays founded Gathering of the Vibes, a four-day festival featuring numerous bands and other activities. (Gathering of the Vibes Photo)

And, the festival — which runs July 25 through 28 at Seaside Park in Bridgeport — offers a variety of activities for the children and teens in your family, including a Teen Vibes stage with special performances and chances for kids to jam with musicians from the festival, as well as “kids corner” and “teen scene” activity areas.

“Every year, the number of children and teens keep growing, about 20% a year,” Hays said.

Last year, about 2,000 children younger than age 18 attended with their parents.

Sunday, July 28, is Connecticut Family Day at the Vibes, with special family-friendly activities.

“Creating an event the whole family can enjoy is always a driving force behind our planning,” Hays said.

Roots of the festival

Gathering of the Vibes began in 1996 as a tribute to Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead the year after he passed away. That first event — which Hays organized at the SUNY Purchase campus — was called Dead Head Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe.

“It started out with a real appreciation for the power of bringing people together,” Hays, a resident of Weston, said.

This Dead Head spirit of people gathering for music and good vibes was so successful that first year, Hays decided to continue.

Dead Heads are superfans of the Grateful Dead: Hays is a superfan.

This year’s festival features diverse music from artists such as Grateful Dead founder and bass player Phil Lesh, local Fairfield County band Deep Banana Blackout, legendary saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarist Warren Haynes, Gov’t. Mule, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Blues Traveler, John Butler Trio and The Black Crowes.

If some of the names are unfamiliar, fear not. According to Hays, the lineup is designed to please.

“The Vibes lineup appeals to everyone,” Hays said. “People might not have heard of everyone, but they’re all incredibly talented.”

They’re also eclectic.

There are components of Grateful Dead music, rock and roll and bluegrass — but none is the entirety of the festival’s musical component.

“It’s a really diverse lineup of musicians that span genres,” Hays said.

The festival has been held in six different venues through the years. This year marks the ninth time the Vibes has been held at Seaside Park, which has hosted the festival more than any other location.

Past performers have included Crosby, Stills and Nash; all founding members of the Grateful Dead; Elvis Costello; the Allman Brothers Band; James Brown; Jane’s Addiction; Buddy Guy; Jimmy Cliff; Bruce Hornsby; Les Claypool; Branford Marsalis; Damian Marley and Nas, and more.

The festival also showcases “extraordinarily talented” emerging bands.

 A simpler time

Another strong theme of the festival for Hays flowered from a seed that was planted during his childhood in Greenwich.

Hays and his dad used to go to games at Shea Stadium, and it was a time Hays remembers fondly.

“Growing up, [that] was bonding time with my dad,” Hays said.

He believes that the festival is a good refuge from a barrage of unsettling news 24 hours a day and, in turn, is a way for people to just enjoy themselves for a few days.

“This is that chance,” Hays said.

It is a means of getting the kids away from video games and out among people in a happy, safe environment.

“Children are running around having fun [at the festival],” Hays said.

And families can be together in a unique setting.

“It’s a chance for parents to do something different with their kids,” Hays said.

The progression

After 18 years, the festival has developed. It has carried the spirit of people coming together for good music and fun times but became its own unique experience.

“Although we started out 18 years ago as a tribute to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, that’s really evolved over the years,” Hays said.

As Hays’s festival — which he calls his baby — has grown to suit its audience, which has matured over the years, it has achieved great success.

This year, 20,000 attendees and more than 40 bands are expected on 370-plus acres at Seaside Park. There will be 50 craft and artisan vendors and 16 food vendors. Making it all possible is a staff of 1,500, most of whom are volunteers.

“It’s been a huge hit,” Hays said.

Attendees have contributed to the festival’s growth by responding to a survey the festival sends out each year.

“That’s critical to the success of the concert,” Hays said.

The sheer numbers of people that show up each year make one thing clear — whatever Hays and his crew are doing, it’s working.

“I feel we’ve got a really good model,” Hays said.

And so they are not messing with success in 2013.

“We’re not doing anything radically different this year,” Hays said.

But that’s just fine for Hays given the satisfaction he takes in the fun, clean safe environment for music, arts and camping.

“I take great pride,” he said.

More vibes

In addition to music and camping, the festival offers “unique vending,” kid-friendly activities, nonprofit outreach, art exhibits and sales, greening and humanities education, music workshops, and more.

The Golden Rule of the festival is to respect one another, the staff and the community.

“The City of Bridgeport has been kind enough to host Gathering of the Vibes at Seaside Park once again, so let’s create a memorable, trouble-free weekend together,” according the festival website, govibes.com.

Ticket types include weekend camping passes, weekend VIP camping passes, RV passes, single-day tickets and VIP single-day tickets. Tickets are available at govibes.com.

VIP amenities include special check-in locations, a hospitality tent, complimentary beverages and food, VIP bathroom facilities and showers and souvenirs.

Bridgeport residents receive discounted rates on non-camping tickets for the whole festival.

On Sunday, July 28, all Connecticut residents receive a discounted rate of $32.50. Bring proof of residency.

Kids 12 and younger are admitted free with a parent or legal guardian. On Family Day that changes to 15 and younger.

The exception is VIP passes. Children five and younger get those free, and there are discounted VIP rates for children ages 6 to 12.

Information about the festival is available at govibes.com or 203-908-3030.

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