music / Columns

Jam Central Station: ekoostik hookah

October 18, 2014 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

I usually say that it was the Dave Matthews Band that gave me my first exposure to jam bands. I also usually credit Horde 2008 as being my first “jam band” concert, although I was primarily there to see Barenaked Ladies (both the band and, you know, actual ladies) and Smashing Pumpkins, followed by DMB in ’98. In reality, however, none of that’s true. I actually saw my first jam band concert in July of ’97 at the Nautica in Cleveland. I went because a friend of mine had a ride that crapped out on her a couple of hours before the show, and I had access to a car. That band turned out to be the biggest Ohio grown jam band, ekoostik hookah.

Ekoostik hookah got their start in the early 90’s in central Ohio. Most of the members of the band were part of other Dead-themed cover bands or bar bands, plying their trade on small stages or back areas in front of stacked-up tables and chairs. Through various open mic nights, small gigs, and friends of friends bringing members together, the band came together in early 1991. Dave Katz took the helm as the primary songwriter and as well as a vocalist and on keyboards in the band, with John Mullins as rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Steve Sweney on lead guitar, Cliff Starbuck on bass, and Steve Frye on drums.
The band quickly developed a dedicated following by playing bars on the Ohio State campus in Columbus. The songwriting was impressive, and the improvisational skill harkened directly back to the Grateful Dead. They released their first album, Under Full Sail in 1992. The album had limited circulation, but would later be reissued. They started playing larger venues, moving from bars to clubs that would hold crowds in the hundreds.

It was during this early developmental time for the band that drummer Steve Frye decided to move on and recommended that the band bring in Eric Lanese. This brought about a pretty dramatic change in the early sound of the band, but it led them to explore a little more into different styles. Frye was memorialized in the song “Octofrye,” and the band moved forward. The embarked on their first trips out of the Columbus area, heading to the jam-band hotbed of Colorado and building a fan base that stretched throughout Ohio and into surrounding states. ’94 saw the release of Dubbabuddah and the band continuing to move into bigger venues. They took up residency at the Newport in Columbus for weekly shows and began touring in other states on a regular basis. In just about 2 years, hookah had gone from being a college town bar band to a major regional success.

’94 was also the beginning of the best-known ekoostik hookah tradition. The band decided to throw a party in the woods over Memorial Day weekend. Despite very little advertising, planning, or preparation, 800 fans showed up for the concert. Dubbed “Hookahville,” the weekend was a huge success. They adopted the philosophy of “no hassles or bad attitudes,” and the fans responded. Years later Katz commented on how easy the first Hookahville was, and how the fans took this philosophy seriously by being laid back, cleaning up the area, and promoting a positive vibe. The band had such a good time putting together their first Hookahville that they planned another event for Labor Day weekend, this one called “Hookahfest.” Originally there was no set plan to make this a biannual event, but that was mainly because there really was no set plan at all. Hookahville came together based on good relationships, goodwill, positive attitudes, a band looking to just have fun and fans who wanted to embrace what the band was promoting.

As the idea of Hookahville began to take hold, the band continued to enjoy Midwest success. They released their first live album, an untitled double-disc set. Unfortunately, while the band was on a phenomenal rise, internal problems made it difficult for the band to cope. Specifically, frontman John Mullins personal problems and behavior led to the band not feeling that they could rely on him anymore. Things came to a head in the fall of ’96 when the band fired Mullins.

This decision obviously served to stop the momentum that the band had spent the past five years building. After consideration, they brought in another former member of Local Color (the band that Katz had come out of), guitarist and vocalist Ed McGee. It took the band a couple of years to regain parts of their fan base, and some fans never returned after Mullins’ departure. McGee proved to be a more than adequate replacement, however, not only tackling older hookah songs but also lending his own songwriting ability to the band. The twice-a-year tradition of Hookahville also helped keep fans engaged. Even though they may have been unhappy about Mullins’ departure, by that time Hookahville was an event that was marked on fans’ calendars well in advance. It was a tradition that they weren’t willing to give up, and it helped the band continue. They released another pair of live albums as well as their first studio album with McGee, 1998’s Where the Fields Grow Green.

As the band regrouped, Hookahville continued to grow exponentially. The 800 or so fans in 94 grew to a couple of thousand in the mid 90’s, as the event migrated to different venues throughout the state. The band began to create a vision of bringing in other artists that they respected, artists that they wanted to turn their fans on to, and artists that they just wanted to see. The brought in nationally touring acts throughout the late 90’s. The biggest jump for the event came in Spring ’99 when Bob Weir’s Ratdog played the event for the first time. This prompted Hookahville to move from smaller campgrounds to Buckeye Lake Music Center, a venue that had hosted The Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet, Lollapalooza, and many other major concerts.

Hookahville had grown beyond anyone’s imaginations. At the beginning of the decade, hookah continued to bring in major artists such as David Crosby, Willie Nelson, Dickie Betts, Arlo Guthrie, WAR, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Bruce Hornsby, George Clinton, Blue Oyster Cult, and many others. They also provided a platform for up-and-coming bands to play. Before they were major names on the jam band circuit, artists like Umphrey’s McGee, Keller Williams, Galactic, Donna the Buffalo, and Robert Randolph & The Family Band all played Hookahville. By the early 2000’s, the band had found a pair of homes in east-central Ohio, Buckeye Lake (later to be renamed Legend Valley) and Frontier Ranch. The location for this festival made it easy for fans from throughout the Midwest to attend, and the band didn’t limit the “undercard” to hour-long sets. The events had a nice balance of major names and up-and-comers.

While it might not be completely accurate to trace the roots of other Midwest festivals like All Good or Bonnaroo back to Hookahville, Hookahville did prove that the market was there for a festival. The band did most of the work themselves, from deciding on the lineup to booking artists to getting the tickets and security in place. While attendance for Hookahville has declined over recent years (which can be attributed to the rise in the number of festivals throughout the country), ekoostik hookah has continued to take a lot of pride in Hookahville and put their best foot forward for the event.

For the most part, the fans came back to the band and the music continued to be strong. They put out two more studio albums, 2002’s Seahourse, and 2004’s Ohio Grown. They picked up percussionist John Polansky around this time, although he only stayed on board for a few years. A bigger blow to the band was when McGee announced he was going to step away from the band. His final show was on New Years Eve of ’05. With the announcement of McGee’s departure, the band decided to take a much-needed hiatus. To say that the future of ekoostik hookah was uncertain would be an understatement.

With the front of the stage once again unfilled, the band took a familiar yet almost completely unexpected route. After being away from the band for nearly a decade, former frontman and founder John Mullins was brought back into the fold. He re-joined a band that was very different than the one that he had left, a band that had successfully headlined some of the Midwest’s biggest festivals and had played a variety of other festivals throughout the country to solid reviews. Ekoostik hookah wasn’t a band searching for fans, they were a band with a solid reputation and track record. Mullins returned with a set of shows in Jamaica, followed by shows at hookah’s familiar stomping grounds of Nelson’s Ledges in Garrettsville, Ohio and culminating with a successful Spring Hookahville at Legend’s Valley. Spring Hookahville featured one of the strongest lineups in the festival’s history, including Yonder Mountain String Band and 90’s radio sensation (and seasoned jam band) Blues Traveler.

The band hadn’t released any new material since 2002, and, at the invitation of an independent label, they headed down to Atlanta for a series of both live and studio recordings. They re-recorded their 1992 debut Under Full Sail and coupled it with a live disc. The package was released as Under Full Sail: It All Comes Together. The band continued to play nationally and continued to give Ohio fans a variety of special treats. Hookahvilles, weekends at Nelson’s Ledges, “Hookahween” shows, and epic New Years Eve shows were events that fans continued to count on.

At the end of 2009, bassist Cliff Starbuck announced that he would be leaving ekoostik hookah. His last show was the New Years Eve show that year. The band quickly recruited Philip Risko to take his place, and the band appeared ready to move on. Plans were made for a trip to Jamaica as well as Spring Hookahville, which would include a pair of very well-known names in the likes of Gov’t Mule and Michael Franti & Spearhead. This was also the first time that they scheduled Hookahville as a three-day event, allowing Gov’t Mule the opportunity to headline Saturday night with a full two-set show. A bomb was dropped on the band in March, however, when John Mullins abruptly left the band just a month before their Jamaica shows. Eric Sargent was tapped to fill Mullins shoes. Hookahville that year went off without a hitch, and Sargent was kept on as a full-time member.

Since the 2010 lineup change ekoostik hookah has continued to roll with the times. Hookahville morphed into The Ville in 2013 and found a new home at Clay’s Park Resort. The band released brij in 2013, their first disc of all new material in over a decade. While Katz has continued to be the band’s primary songwriter, Eric Sargent has contributed significantly to ekoostik hookah’s most recent incarnation. Clay’s Park has proven to be a great new venue for The Ville, with a water park on site and a great camping area. While The Ville might not draw 15,000 fans like the band was able to do in their heyday, the event is still a twice a year tradition for fans from all over the midwest.

Back to my original story. Let me try and explain why seeing ekoostik hookah in ’97 was such a big deal for me. I was a 17 year old metalhead , an unlikely figure to be at an ekoostik hookah show. I listened to metal because I didn’t really conform well to a lot of the other people that I knew. Metal was a community that I could be a part of, one where I didn’t have to be like everyone else. I had no idea that there existed this whole other musical world with the same type of individualism, freedom, and camaraderie that I found in metal, but expressed in a whole different way.

In all honesty, I don’t remember what the band played or much about the show at all. I remember a lot of dancing, a lot of girls in skirts spinning around, a lot of smoke (which I was not at all familiar with at the time), and, honestly, just what seemed like a lot of freedom of the fans. As I said, this was my scene and I wasn’t familiar with it, but it did seem like everyone was having a really good time. I wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge into jam band-dom, but I was intrigued. That show helped me open my ears a little bit to other forms of music, which definitely helped make my Horde experience more memorable (where I got to see Ben Harper and Gov’t Mule, without knowing how awesome that was), and it got me to realize even more that live shows can be so much more than simply reenactments of studio material.

While I didn’t become a “hookah-head,” and my forays into jam bands other than DMB didn’t start in earnest until years after that first experience, ekoostik hookah helped shape where my tastes in jam music ended up. I’ve spent a long time trying to classify where hookah fits, and I’ve decided that their special niche is best defined as Ohio jam. They are reminiscent of some of the Southern jam bands, but definitely without the Southern vocals. They can bring out a traditional blues sound, but they with a quality that is unlike anything that classic blues artists would do. They jam as well as the greats, but instead of psychedelic trips like The Grateful Dead provide or the grand opuses of Phish, ekoostik hookah’s jams take the listener through the hills and fields of rural Ohio. It’s something that makes ekoostik hookah special, and it’s kept their Midwest fans loyal for nearly two decades.

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Harvest Music Festival
October 16-18, 2014
Mulberry Mountain
Ozark, AR
Performers include: Yonder Mountain String Band with Jerry Douglas, Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth, Lettuce, The Devil Makes Three, Dumpstaphunk, Elephant Revival, Cornmeal, and many others

Hangtown Halloween Ball
October 24-26, 2014
Placerville, CA
Performers include: Railroad Earth (3 nights), The Meter Men, Leftover Salmon, The Jeff Austin Band, The motet, and many others

Suwannee Hulaween
October 31-November 2, 2014
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Performers include: String Cheese Incident (3 nights), Thievery Corp., Big Gigantic, Beats Antique, EOTO, Greensky Bluegrass, and many others

Bear Creek Music & Art Festival
November 13-16, 2014
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Performers include: Umphrey’s McGee, Lettuce, Dumpstaphunk, The New Mastersounds, Break Science, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, Turkuaz, The Main Squeeze, Tauk, and many others

Strings & Sol
December 11-15, 2014
Puerto Morales, Mexico
Performers include: Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Greensky Bluegrass

Christmas Jam
December 13, 2014
U.S. Cellular Center
Asheville, NC
Performers include: Gov’t Mule, VInce Gill, billy and the Kids, Hard Working Americans, The Revivialists, and many others.

Jam Cruise
January 6-11, 2015
Departs from Miami, FL

Tropical Throe.down
January 9-13, 2015
Grand Lido Resort
Negril, Jamaica
Performers include: moe., Floodwood, Conehead Buddha Horns, and Ha Ha The Moose.

Island Exodus
January 14-18, 2015
Grand Lido Negril
Negril, Jamaica
Gov’t Mule will host the event

Panic en la Playa Cuatro
January 24-28, 2014
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Widespread Panic will host this event

One Big Holiday
January 31-February 4, 2015
Hard Rock Hotel
Riviera Maya, Mexico
My Morning Jacket will host the event

Aura Music Festival
March 6-8, 2015
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Performers include: The Disco Biscuits, moe., Papadosio, Snarky Puppy, kung Fu, Dopapod, Jimkata, The Main Squeeze, American Babies, and many others.

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!