Last summer, I interviewed Bill Kreutzman and Papa Mali for a book/documentary film project I’m working on. The project is called JAMerica and it’s a history and overview of the jam and festival scene. As most people reading this will know, the festival scene has blown up over the past decade. More multi-day, multi-artist, multi-genre bills pop up every year in every corner of the country. I was curious if Bill thought the festival scene would have exploded this way if the Grateful Dead were still around. Bill’s answer was tellingly humble, “I think it was gonna happen anyway. We were just caught up on the wave like everyone else, even though we were some of the first.” Like any good band mate, as Bill fell back, Papa Mali took the lead on the answer: “I think the Dead were the first band to develop a sense of community that exceeded regional boarders. People, fans would follow them from city to city, state to state. People would go on tour with the Dead. People do that with the festival scene nowadays. It’s really obvious that the kids who come to these festivals, they want to experience what they didn’t get to experience by going on a Dead tour and they are getting that in a lot of ways. The bands that came up in the jam band scene have definitely used the Dead as an anchor.”
The “anchor” that Papa refers to is a blend of musical improvisation mixed with a multi-pronged focus on community-building. The Dead – and Deadheads – built a vibrant scene out of those two pillars, which held the dream together and also allowed it to become a creative, cathartic, collective space for both audience and musicians. In the same interview, Bill said, “To tell you the truth I always held the audience in a higher esteem than the band. I think they are more important, because without the audience loving us the way they did, we wouldn’t have been able to play the way we did.”
For many of us, losing Jerry felt like losing our anchor; our ship was adrift and stormy seas were rising past our formerly dancing feet. In 1996, Ken Hayes threw a small festival on the campus of SUNY Purchase called, “Deadhead Haven – A Gathering of the Tribe.” The event was organized as a memorial for Jerry, but the seeds planted that day amounted to much more than a memorial. The energy and wisdom around the Grateful Dead was (and is) too important to let die or fade into nostalgia. Think of Bobby’s vocal on “Throwing Stones” as a challenge that Mr. Hayes took up (and one that we should all rise to): “The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own.” If we want to keep the spirit alive, it’s truly up to us. The following year, Hayes moved the festival to Croton Point Park, NY and christened it with its final name: Gathering of the Vibes.
Although I’d been hearing about it for years, 2011 was the first GOTV I attended. For the past eight years, the festival has been held in the 325 acre Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut. True to its name, the Olmstead-designed park (supported by none other than former Bridgeport resident – and GD lyric hero - P.T. Barnum) sprawls easily toward Long Island Sound, providing cool breezes and soothing vistas. It was immediately apparent to me that the spirit of the Dead was more alive here than at any festival I’d attended since Jerry beamed out. Some of it was the choice of vendors (Dye the Sky; Not Fade Away Graphics; Grateful Don’s Silver & Sarongs, etc.), and, of course, having the Rhythm Devils play with Keller Williams and Steve Kimock, and hearing other scene stalwarts like Dark Star Orchestra (with guest Donna Jean Godchaux), Max Creek, and David Gans turned the stages into a family reunion of warriors who’ve been keeping the spirit alive - with their own music and tributes to the GD – lo these many years. Furthur’s blazing headline set on Friday night solidified all those feelings and crystallized the energy of the crowd into a laser-point that, by start of second set, burned especially bright into the Seaside Park sky. Dear friends, is there anything better than the start of second set when the darkness has fallen and the energy is just right? I looked around and was blown away by the mix of ages in particular – so many kids who looked and danced like Dead freaks have over the years, but who’d never gotten to see the Grateful Dead, were getting an authentic mouthful of what the fuss was all about. Even better for me personally was seeing all the old-timers (which, alas and hurrah, I now find myself among) celebrating the music that was being performed at that moment - not on CD, or DVD, or streamed, or any of the ways we get through our days - but Here. Now. What better way to catalyze that energy than to open second set with a St. Stephen-The Eleven? Thanks, fellas.
Over the festival’s four days, it occurred to me that the spirit the “Vibe Tribe” was keeping alive couldn’t be quantified by anything as simple as vendors, or dancers, or even the stellar lineup. As always, it was a mix of those things that put the real stardust into the air. How many good shows have been killed by a bad scene, overzealous security, or, lately, yappers who talk through the whole show? (Seriously, close your mouth and move your feet! p.s.) Put your phone away while you’re at it. Take a picture with your brain, it’ll last longer.) GOTV is dialed into the magic that made the original scene (with a huge shout-out to Bill Graham’s legendary model of caretaking) feel so special. It’s that combination of environment, caring, open-mindedness, and understanding of the audience-staff-band dynamic that creates a truly ideal experience. Remember what Billy said, “Without the audience loving us the way they did, we wouldn’t have been able to play the way we did.” With its roots planted firmly in the GD scene, GOTV has been constructed on a model that honors that dynamic and the blueprint, “the anchor,” pays off.
I’m going back to GOTV this year. The good people at the Grateful Dead Booth have invited me to hang around a bit and sign copies of my book, Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. I did the same thing last year and was thrilled to talk Dead with so many friends, new and old. This year, the “Core Four” will be there playing with their different bands and configurations. My first thought on seeing their individual billings was: “Since we’ll all be there, and you guys are gonna be there, maybe we should, you know, get together?” As unlikely as that is, when GOTV gets going and the stardust gets sprinkled into the air, whatever comes rolling of those stages will be met by a joyful crowd in Seaside Park, dancing together into the future…
Get Peter Conner's book Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead.