When Grateful Dead spiritual leader Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the band stopped touring, many long-time fans found themselves suddenly without a reason to gather with the many friends they made on tour. It was a sad time for those people for whom the band was an important anchor in their lives.
Into the darkness stepped Ken Hays, a veteran of hundreds of Dead shows. In 1996, he formed Gathering of the Vibes, a place for Grateful Dead fans to come together, rock out to live music by bands in the Dead's jam band tradition, and keep the spirit of Jerry Garcia alive.
But it quickly grew into more than just the Dead. "The community came up with the name 'Vibe Tribe' because they're fans of more than just the Dead," says Hays. "They're fans of the Allman Brothers and Phish and Dave Matthews and Herbie Hancock and more."
In 16 years, Gathering of the Vibes has grown into a premiere northeast music festival that combines legendary artists with emerging acts to appeal to a wide cross-section of live music enthusiasts. Hays selects bands to play the festival that the community will enjoy but that they may not yet be familiar with. "You've got to mix it up or it becomes stagnant," he says. "What really gives me joy is when thousands of people hear a legend like Taj Mahal, people who may have never seen him before, never experienced him live. To be in a beautiful park with friends and family and listen to amazing live music is real."
At the 2011 event held July 21-24 at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT, nearly 50 bands played on multiple stages, performing for roughly 25,000 fans per day. The surviving members of the Grateful Dead have all played Gathering of the Vibes in the past several years. At this year's festival, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh hit the stage with their band Furthur, while Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann were together with Keller Williams, Steve Kimock and Reed Mathis as the Rhythm Devils.
The Grateful Dead, founded in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, built a fan base in unconventional ways, such as allowing people to record their live shows. Their popularity grew, and in the 1990s, they were the most popular touring band in the world. Today, many fans keep in touch online via dead.net, the band's official site and an official Grateful Dead Facebook page with over one million fans.
Perhaps Hays' most important contribution is that Gathering of the Vibes has brought new music to the Vibe Tribe beyond just that of the Grateful Dead. Indeed, mixing it up has always been a Grateful Dead tradition and many diverse bands have covered Grateful Dead music over the years. Some of the best-known covers were curated into an album called Deadicated, which released in 1991. Twenty years later, three of the bands that played on the Deadicated album played Vibes: Elvis Costello, Jane's Addiction, and Dr. John.
"There are certain similarities to The Dead, and Jane's," says Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction. "Both groups were into experimentation and individual freedom. As musicians, neither relied on record sales -- both chiseling out careers by creating legendary live performances. Our drummer Stephen Perkins had a big brother who had hundreds of live recordings of The Dead. When we recorded "Ripple" for Deadicated, he told us it was 'the proudest day of his life.' He died very soon after -- and so it crystalized as a bittersweet moment in time for Stephen and the band."
"The music resonates with the younger generation and that's really gratifying," says Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart who is embarking on a solo tour this month. "Creating it was a joy. It's really cool to see people turned onto it and taking it beyond where we took it, in another way. Being the godfathers of it, the creators of it, it's like your children growing up and doing great things in the world, taking the music to the next generations. Music is forever. The music was intended to raise consciousness and give a great feeling to life."
During Elvis Costello and the Imposters' set at Gathering of the Vibes 2011, the band played a version of the Grateful Dead's "It Must Have Been The Roses." "I've always loved the Dead's records from 'Workingman's Dead' to 'From the Mars Hotel'," says Costello. "That was great run of songs, many of the best of them only recorded on the [Grateful Dead's] 1972 tour. That turns out to be a valuable lesson, now record albums are a thing of the past. You can always take to the stage and do it again."
The festival plays an important role in exposing the next generation to live music. "It's a tribute to the power, influence, and longevity of the music of the Grateful Dead that many teenagers and younger kids come to the Vibes with their parents and grandparents," says Hays. "The cross generational influence is a tribute to how the community has sustained itself. It's particularly gratifying to me to have kids who are inspired by more than just video games."