About This Festival
When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, it threatened to tear a hole in the tight-knit community devoted to following him and the rest of the Grateful Dead around the country. In 1996, two business-savvy Deadheads, Ken Hays and Bob Kennedy, responded to that threat by throwing a memorial party for Garcia at SUNY Purchase, calling it “Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe.” That event was so successful—3,500 people came—that Hays and Kennedy decided to make it an annual thing. In 1997, they moved the festival to New York’s Croton Point Park, renaming it “Gathering of the Vibes.”
Now in its twentieth year, Vibes continues to draw a big, carefree crowd of happy people who embrace the “life is good” philosophy without much question. Known as the VibeTribe, the regular core of attendees are unusually generous with smiles and hugs. They tend to be peaceniks who celebrate positivity with abandon, and without a touch of irony.
A Beachy Backdrop
In 1999, Vibes relocated to Seaside Park in historic Bridgeport, Connecticut (though in 2001 it moved to Red Hook, New York, while Seaside Park was getting renovated, not to return again until 2007). It turned out that the Long Island Sound’s mile-long beach and salty sea air was the perfect setting for this midsummer festival.
Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Manhattan’s Central Park, and petitioned into being by P.T. Barnum, the 370-acre venue welcomes boaters arriving by sea, has wild parrots nesting in its trees (look closely), and a cheerful Ferris wheel presiding over it all. There are also ample RV hookups and campsites that accommodate Vibes’s 12,000 overnight onsite guests.
A Deadhead Crowd
Vibes gets 25,000 people per day, and a big chunk of that crowd still worships the Grateful Dead, so your eyes will be tantalised by plenty of tie-dye and long hair. Among the younger attendees, there’s a lot of bare skin in acknowledgement of the fact that everyone is grooving essentially on the beach: Women wear bikini tops and cutoffs, shirtless dudes carry kids on their shoulders. There’s lots of bandanas and flowers in people’s hair, and clothes with fringes, crocheting, and lace. Full-on costumes abound: It won’t take long for you to encounter stilt walkers, rainbow unitards, and mermaids.
Expect to feel a real and welcoming sense of community at this Gathering of the Vibes. People regularly make new friends, even if they’re here to reunite with the people they’ve been coming to see for years. The idea is to retain some sense of the Deadhead openness and warmth that Jerry Garcia fostered when he was alive.
Friends old and new dance (or hula-hoop) together amid the lawn chairs on the grass, discover new bands and savor the music of old favorites, and wander the grounds in search of food, merchandise, crafts, and art exhibits. After dark, tents light up and the VibeTribe decorates itself in anything that glows, creating an illuminated spectacle that’s hard not to smile at.
Young at Heart
Vibes is a true intergenerational event, with more than 2,000 children in attendance every year. Parents are so encouraged to bring their little ones that admission for ages 12 and younger is free. Accordingly, there’s a robust area within walking distance of the designated family camping area, called Kids Corner, which offers an array of performances for children, face painting, crafts, and a lively puppet parade.
There’s plenty for teenagers to do too: free music lessons, intimate performances by surprise musical guests, jamming with friends, games, hair wraps, juggling lessons, and a Teen Vibes Stage where young people can get some performing experience under their belt.
Yes, this is a Grateful Dead-inspired festival. And yes, there’s plenty of that jam-band genre in the mix, not to mention folk, blues, reggae, and bluegrass. But the lineup is surprisingly diverse: There’s also rock, jazz, and R&B, plus some inspired, unexpected collaborations: surviving Grateful Dead members play with the Disco Biscuits, for example, while Lotus covers the Talking Heads.
As Hays told a Huffington Post reporter: "You've got to mix it up or it becomes stagnant. 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." Hays added that he likes to reserve a portion of the lineup as a launching pad for up-and-coming artists.
These days, more than 50 bands play on multiple stages. Highlights have included Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh, Govt. Mule, Elvis Costello, James Brown, Jane’s Addiction, Primus, the Black Crowes, the Roots, Widespread Panic, moe., John Fogerty, Ziggy Marley, Slightly Stoopid, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and the Dark Star Orchestra, which is a standout Dead tribute band. After dark, the music continues late into the night, featuring DJs like Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza. Wavy Gravy has been the master of ceremonies since 2002, and many of Vibes’s acts graciously offer at least one Dead cover tune.