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In the Aquarium with Ekoostik Hookah

Ekoostik Hookah percussionist Johnny Polansky is nowhere to be found. The box office staff, security guards, and roadies are all clueless to my arrival.

Standing in a dilapidated alley outside the Kalamazoo State Theater, I feel like I’m reenacting a scene from the movie Almost Famous, with a pen and notebook in tow, waiting for something to happen. Thankfully, it’s an unseasonably warm February night in Michigan. Kids are already lining the streets waiting for the venue doors to open, but we still have two hours until showtime.

My break eventually comes in the form of singer/rhythm guitarist Ed McGee who has stepped outside to make a call on his cell phone. He’s polite to my interruption, and offers to lead me backstage. McGee takes me through the back door, past openers Umphrey’s McGee who are onstage sound checking, and down some winding staircase’s eventually arriving backstage where Polansky is partaking in some pre-show activities. McGee scurries off, and the entire room clears out at the sight of a man clutching a tape recorder. All except for Polansky, his girlfriend, and lead guitarist Steve Sweney, who’s half asleep and looks entirely too tired to run away from some crack journalist. The group’s other members, bassist Cliff Starbuck, drummer Eric Lanese, and vocalist/keyboardist Dave Katz, are all off engaging in their own pre show rituals leaving Polansky to fend for himself.

It’s easy to understand the band’s decision to lay low when you’re the best-kept secret on the jamband circuit. The group’s entire career has been defined through constant touring, and astounding festivals they throw every spring and fall in their native Ohio, appropriately titled “Hookahville.” The group’s seventeenth Hookah is slated to take place this spring with confirmed acts Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Umphrey’s McGee.

The band has shared the stage with many great acts like Willie Nelson, Ratdog, and David Grisman, while adhering to a grueling schedule that never lets up. Yet, Hookah’s name still manages to carry a question mark within different circles. This tour has been no different, as they’ve been holding CD release shows in support of their new album Seahorse, released on their own record label Acoustic Recordings. Seahorse, their sixth release, is a culmination of many years together perfecting a blend of psychedelica, blues, jazz, and funk into their own brand of rock and roll that could propel the band into the national spotlight.

“Everyone always asks us that question how’s the tour going?’ and I always say which tour are you talking about, the one that’s been going on 11 years now?” a grinning Polansky added. “We don’t tour in the traditional sense that some bands do.”

Ekoostik Hookah is on the road five days a week, honing a sound that is well-represented by the group’s latest album. Never obstreperous, Hookah always manages to remain positive, as Seahorse is filled with themes of road-weary travelers, tired troubadours, and seekers of new roads looking to find some sort of meaning in this thing called life. The album is chock full of lighthearted rockers and rustic country-fied anthems with a little bluegrass on top. Seahorse, swirls and sways between tales of freedom, stories of awkwardness, and having a beef with New York yuppies.

Perhaps you could call Seahorse a conceptual piece in the sense that this is a group still floating around, trying to find their place somewhere in the national spotlight. Despite the rousing success of Hookahville, the group still remains a regional band, only selling out shows in or around the Ohio area. Call it the midwestern blues, call it born under a bad sign, call it what you will, but the group doesn’t possess the stroke of luck that the western jam rock groups are so accustomed too.

Seahorse is the album that could finally garner a national spotlight. The group still manages to build upon its Canned Heat boogie-blues, while focusing a little more attention on some bluegrass swagger. The album’s best track, “Alexander II,” focuses on a ghost whose soul has yet to be freed and a young girl who must help him. I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s ten minutes of music that will have you on the edge of your seat.

One might think of calling Seahorse conceptual as characters float about free in an ocean, but Polansky shrugs off the allegation as purely coincidence. “There was no intention of that, but that’s the beauty of interpretation of art. Sometimes a Red Square on canvas is just a Red Square, but someone will interpret it as something else and the same goes for music. Your interpretation of the music is just as valid.”

Meanwhile at a time when many Jam bands are adding DJ’s, Moog Synthesizers, and drum machines to the mix, creating their own crazy hybrids with new labels like trance rock. Seahorse doesn’t come even close to possessing any of that, and Polansky says don’t expect Hookah to venture into techno land any time soon.

“We’re just going to keep doing Ekoostik Hookah music like we’ve been doing.” Polansky said. “We’re definitely an organic band developing and evolving daily, but we don’t have any plans of heading down that direction. Personally I like that stuff. But we have six different distinct listening styles in the group.”

Of all the new labels flooding the market and the Jam Band circuits especially, Polansky also is careful to point out that Ekoostik Hookah is, and always will be, a rock group. “I don’t particularly like the Jam Band label,” Polansky shrugs. “Were an improvisational rock band as far as I’m concerned.” Slumped in a couch Sweney chimed in; “We’ve been around twice as long as that (Jamband) label.” “I’d hate to say rock and roll because then you think of Jerry Lee Lewis or something, but whatever happened to the term rock?”

The conversation quickly shifts to Polansky’s view on the term “fans”, a term that doesn’t sit well with him, opting to think of them as collaborators. “First of all, I think our fans are the greatest in the world,” Polansky said. “But I really enjoy the idea that everyone is a friend intent on a communal experience and I draw all my energy off an audience. I even want the guy in the back to feel like he’s up front. Everyone is part of the band.”

If anything, Seahorse should gain more fans, particularly among those who appreciate American Beauty era Dead, or the majestic harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. This is a fertile period for the group which also plans on entering the studio in March to hone their studio craft even more with another release planned for the not so distant future.

Despite the band’s constant touring schedule, Polansky admits to feeling no pain at all. Even if it is February, and you have to leave at three in the morning to make the show the next day. “I only have a problem when I’m home for only one day and I have to leave the next,” Polansky added sheepishly. “It’s like you barely get to your mail and you have to split already.” Even though it may get tough, Polansky admits he wouldn’t do anything else with anyone else. “ I look around the stage and trust my musical life with these guys.” He went on, “That’s what helps to get you through a lot of times. Playing good music with good friends.”

Polansky beams with excitement, and begins spewing about Umphrey’s McGee, and can’t say enough good words about them. Which is good, because I’m out of questions, and Polansky is almost out of responses. Despite his earlier comments about the jam band label, before he exits, and after a quick message-check on his cell phone, Polansky does express his admiration for Jambands.Com. “I’ll tell you one thing I do like about labeling is that there is something out there like Jambands.com. That there is an outlet, or a resource for people to tap in and be a part of. We appreciate the communal aspect.”

Later on that night, Hookah takes the stage about 10:00 p.m. The crowd is riled, and Umphrey’s is a tough act to follow, but Hookah handles the pressure like road tested groups often do. The group’s first set is a rollicking affair as old favorites like “Lady Vanilla,” and “Sharp in the Flats,” showcase guitarist Steve Sweney’s raucous guitar solos. You can tell the group has played together for a long time as they read each other’s cues and anticipate changes fluidly. Heads in the audience are bobbing up and down in unsynchronized patterns.

Polansky is clearly having fun behind a myriad of percussion instruments. He snakes back and forth between drums, bells, and cymbals, fists pumping at all times. He’s smiling, I’m smiling, and his audience is smiling right back at him.

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