Vibes founder promotes ‘family-friendly’ music festival

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.”

And, the festival — which runs July 25-28 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.

Connecticut Family Day at the Vibes is Sunday, July 28, 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 died. That first event — which Hays organized at the SUNY Purchase campus in New York state — was called Dead Head Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe.

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

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, The Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Gov’t Mule, local Fairfield County band Deep Banana Blackout, saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarist Warren Haynes, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, and John Butler Trio.

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.”

Eclectic musical mix on stage

The musical lineup also is eclectic. There are components of Grateful Dead music, rock ’n’ 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 Bridgeport’s Seaside Park, which has hosted the festival more than any other location.

Past performers have included Crosby, Stills & 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.

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 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’ festival — he calls it 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 the 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.

‘We’ve got a really good model’

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,” Hays said.

Many activities

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

Ticket information and other details

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

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

Children 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 5 and younger get those free, and there are discounted VIP rates for children ages 6 to 12.

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