By Mark Miller

Gathering Of The Vibes is about the closest you can get to a full-blown Grateful Dead summer music festival. Held annually on the East Coast each summer since 1996, it keeps getting bigger and better – and this year’s edition, July 19-22, will once again take place at scenic Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT.

Gathering 2012 is a virtual Dead reunion. Headliners include Phil Lesh and Friends and Bob Weir, teamed with both former ‘90s Dead piano player Bruce Hornsby and late ’80s/early ’90s frequent Dead guest-star Branford Marsalis.

Original Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann will be on hand with his band, 7 Walkers. Plus, the Mickey Hart Band is slated to rock. And, for the first time ever, the main stage will be raging until 2 a.m. every evening. You can check out the full line-up here.

We sat down with Gathering founder Ken Hays to find out what makes this festival tick, year after year. When asked why Seaside Park is an ideal setting for Gathering of the Vibes, Hays busted out some obscure yet fascinating trivia: “Seaside Park was donated to the city by P.T. Barnum while he was mayor of Bridgeport in 1875, with the understanding that it would always be used for recreational activities – and I think Gathering falls in that category.”

Memories of last year’s festival had Hays recalling a recently fallen rock icon: “[2011] was the heat wave; it was brutal. When Levon Helm took the stage, it was the hottest part of the weekend. But he came out with a big smile on his face and raged for an hour and a half, and we’re going to miss him dearly.”

Once again, Master of Ceremonies Wavy Gray will host the festivities. For Hays, the 76-year-old Wavy “exemplifies family, community, music, and unconditional love.” On the other end of the lifespan spectrum, Hays attributes the presence of children and the generational element of Gathering to making the festival unique at a time when it seems a new music fest is being staged every weekend.

Beyond the music, Hays noted there would be a nonprofit sustainability village addressing everything from environmentalism to human rights. But they never get preachy. Hays paraphrases Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s line from the definitive Dead song “Terrapin Station”: “We come to spread light, not to master.” Additionally, a skin cancer screening van on site is perfect for hippies who spend hours boogying under the sun.

Pot and other mind-expanding drugs are obviously a big part of the Deadhead experience and Hays is encouraged that the scene promises to be more relaxed this year. Marijuana was decriminalized in Connecticut in 2011, up to a half-ounce incurs only a $150 fine. And as of June 1, Connecticut became the 17th state to legalize medicinal marijuana.

Hays confirmed that Gathering would continue ad infinitum: “Absolutely, this is our 17th year. The first year it was Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe. In the second year it turned into Gathering of the Vibes. It all started after the death of Jerry [in 1995] as a way for the Grateful Dead community to gather.”

With this year’s festival held on the cusp of what would have been Garcia’s 70th Birthday on August 1, and featuring all “core four” surviving members of the Dead, Gathering of the Vibes 2012 could be the most significant yet. Either way, it’ll be a whole lot of fun. To quote another Grateful Dead classic lyric: “We could have us a high time…living the good life.”

Visit gatheringofthevibes.com for more info.