By GREGORY KATZ
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - The Gathering of the Vibes festival raises some challenging aesthetic questions: Among them, is it possible for a 1960s veteran with a long ponytail to wear tie-dyed shirt, shorts and socks without looking slightly silly, particularly if suffering from varicose veins?
And where else but a summer festival devoted in part to the legacy of the Grateful Dead would the practice of dancing in a bikini top and a long flowing skirt while keeping a hula hoop rotating on your hips catch on?
The festival, which concluded Sunday, draws roughly 20,000 exuberant celebrants to this faded industrial city on the Long Island Sound. It's held at Seaside Park, a beautiful 370-acre site, part of which was donated to the city by circus promoter P.T. Barnum, once a Bridgeport mayor.
The Vibes, which provides Bridgeport with a bit of a boost at a time when jobs are scarce, is one of dozens of flourishing but not gigantic festivals that celebrate the wide scope of American musical traditions, be it the folksy psychedelia of the Dead, traditional country blues or blaring hard rock.
The Dead famously spawned a thriving culture of devotees that regards the Vibes as something of a revival meeting - chaired this time by bassist Phil Lesh, whose band headlined Friday and Saturday nights. But the appeal of festivals on a more manageable scale than juggernauts like Coachella and Bonnaroo goes beyond those devoted to the Dead's legacy.
"Without question, there are more festivals now than 20 years ago," said Ken Hays, who founded the Vibes in 1996. "There used to be relatively few, now there are multiple festivals every single weekend in the northeast. More this year than any other year."
Plenty of them feature offshoots of the Dead. Roberta Goodman, a sound technician and Vibes veteran from Tennessee, is looking forward to attending the Interlocken festival in rural Arrington, Va., later this summer. That lineup will include Further, the Dead offshoot featuring Lesh and Bob Weir, along with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, The Black Crowes and Gov't Mule.
Goodman said many no-longer-young Deadheads who now have conventional jobs plan their vacation time around the myriad festivals so they can still spend a long weekend immersed in music, even if it means sharing a crowded campsite, RV, or hotel room with other aficionados.
"There are so many festivals in the summertime now, it's not just Dead-related," she said. "Festivals have gotten smaller and more local. That's how it all starts. It's happening in all genres and it's more fun when it's not huge."
Many festivals, including the Vibes, offer campgrounds that make a three or four-day event affordable to music lovers who don't want to spring for nearby hotels.
"Festivals that include camping are thriving in the United States," Hays said. "People see value in paying a reasonable price and seeing a full weekend of bands they know and love."
The Vibes musical menu goes well beyond the Dead. The Black Crowes, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Taj Mahal and the late Levon Helm have all played in recent years as the festival has grown. A smaller stage features up-and-coming acts.
Concerts like these are a comfort for the sprawling Dead community, especially after it was rattled earlier this summer when Weir collapsed during a show he was playing with Lesh. The YouTube video was frightening, but spokesmen said the stalwart Dead guitarist and singer had only suffered a bad reaction to a prescription drug he was using to treat an injury.
Weir has since returned to the road, sharing bills with Bob Dylan and others, and drummer Mickey Hart is also active on the festival circuit.
Sally Mulvey, who helped organize the first Vibes and has returned year-after-year as a fan, said the event and others like have become like an extended family reunion.
"My daughter's been going since she was 2," she said of Lexi, 20, who camped out with friends this time.
"You see people, faces, that you haven't seen since last year at this time, new friends, old friends. It's almost like summer camp is for kids. When you send a kid to summer camp it's for them to have fun without mom and dad being there and yet it still being safe. That's what this is, to a large degree."
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