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Published: 2004/05/29
by Cory Tressler

A Versatile Hookah

On Friday May 7th, 2004 Ekoostik Hookah took to the Newport Music Hall’s stage to perform in front of about 1000 zealous Ohio grown fans. They opened their show with a brand new song written by guitarist Ed McGee entitled "Never to Return." This tune carried with it a heavier sound than most of Hookah’s older standards and acted as a catalyst for an excellently played first set that felt fresh and alive. For a band that has been together for a little over thirteen years remaining crisp and spirited can understandably be difficult, but Hookah played with an energy level that would have made some bands that have been around for half as many years feel jealous. As lead guitarist Steve Sweney would propel himself into a wailing guitar solo, the rest of the band would groove along with him picking up their intensity as his solos became more intricate and vigorous. Sweney’s guitar work has always been one of the band’s finer points and during "Life is Good", "Godspeed", and "Lady Vanilla" he did not disappoint. With his trademark floppy "rain forest" cap and gold Les Paul, Sweney’s playing was extremely precise and emotional throughout the night.

Hookah’s songs ranged from heavy rockers, to super funk fueled opuses, to improvisational fusion jams, to simple country foot stompers. Their intense first set lasted over 90 minutes and was highlighted by covers of Canned Heats classic "Going Up the Country" and "The Streetbeater" (better known as the theme song from the TV show Sanford & Son) and a wonderful rendition of the Hookah concert staple "Riversong." After a quick interlude and some onstage herbal undertakings the second set began much like the first with a brand new song, this time it was Dave Katz’s "When the Sun Goes Down." Katz took a brief break from his keyboard duties during this song and joined the band on acoustic guitar. Hookah’s set continued with an excellent version of "The Viper’s Drag" during which Dave Martinez, from the opening band Quanah Parker, joined the mix. A cover of Bob Dylan’s "Isis" followed and then after an extended encore the show finally concluded at about two in the morning.

For a band that has been at it for over a decade they performed with the balls of a young band, while at the same time executing the confidence and resolve of seasoned veterans. This onstage prowess acted as an excellent warm-up for their bi-annual festival, Hookahville. Each year on Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend Hookah rounds up a few of their favorite bands and puts on one hell of a party. Past Hookahville performers include Ratdog, Little Feat, Particle, Arlo Guthrie, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, John Bell solo, Derek Trucks Band, Steve Kimock Band, and Parliament Funkadelic to name just a few. This year’s Spring Hookahville will feature two nights of Hookah along with performances by Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon, the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Scaggs among others. With lineups and guest artists like these it’s no wonder that Hookahville has developed into Ohio’s best music festival. Before their Newport Music Hall performance in Columbus, Ohio I sat down with Ed McGee, bassist Cliff Starbuck, and Steve Sweney and asked them about the past, present, and future of the band.

Ekoostik Hookah has been a band for 13 years now and the current lineup has been together for 8 years, what are some of your most memorable moments as a band?

CS: I don’t remember anything. (laughs)

EM: I liked it when Steve passed out in California and we had to slam the van against a concrete wall to try to wake him up. We did it three times and we broke our fender. He didn’t wake up and he slept all day in the blazing hot parking lot outside our hotel in L.A.

SS: It’s hard to narrow it down.

CS: Just getting to talk to some of our heroes. At Hookavilles I’ve gotten to have normal conversations with some of my favorite musicians like Arlo Guthrie and Peter Rowan.

SS: Every once in a while we get to sit in with some legendary band or one of them sits in with us.

What was playing in Amsterdam like and how was the response to your shows?

CS: Well we had 300 of our own fans over there, so we knew we would have a pretty good response from them, but there were some Dutch people there that really liked it and some other Europeans that said they would be back next time.

Ed, how did the collaboration with the String Cheese Incident come about? (3/27/04 Amsterdam Ed McGee sat in on electric guitar for String Cheese’s encore of "Miss Brown’s Teahouse")

EM: I think that some people in our office and our fans had been in contact with them for other things, so I think our people were talking to their people about some sort of sit-in situation. When I got there I was out to dinner with my parents, but I wanted to go see String Cheese anyway so I kind of cut out early from dinner which was nice because I was not enjoying the dinner. My parents are very cool, but the restaurant was really freaky. Anyway, I ended up at String Cheese and one of our people gave me a pass to go back and I introduced myself, or reintroduced myself because we met them before out west I think in Oregon. They were like, "So you’re going to be sitting in" and I was like, "I don’t know." (laughs) They are all very friendly so we just talked about it and agree to do a Dylan song for the encore, but by the time the encore came they had decided not to do that song and we played some other song of theirs and they just told me what key it was in and that was kind of how it happened.

Has there ever been talk about doing some shows or a Hookahville with the String Cheese Incident?

CS: We’ve talked to them about it. We talk to a lot of people and for one reason or another the details haven’t worked out. But hopefully sometime.

How did Hookahville start?

SS: Originally, it was a party in the woods at Dave’s (Dave Katz Hookah’s keyboardist) property and it was sort of a benefit for that farm to get running water going. So, there were these big trenches dug in between the crowd and the stage, and it wasn’t even a stage it was a truck.

CS: I think it was a hay wagon or a flat bed or something.

SS: I think like 750 people showed up and we thought well let’s keep doing this but lets go to a place that’s not our own private property. It’s twice a year and this is the 21st Hookaville and the 10th anniversary of the first one.

This year’s Spring Hookahville supporting acts seem to be veterans of past Hookahvilles and also carry with them a predominately bluegrass flavor. How involved is the band in the whole process of setting up Hookahville and picking which bands get to play?

CS: We are pretty involved. We’ve always sort of worked on a big list of who we’d like to have there and we give that list to the booking agency and see who we can get. There wasn’t like a plan to make it a bluegrass thing, it just kind of worked out that way because those are the people who were available. The veterans are just bands that we really like and it’s good to have them back.

SS: Old friends.

What have been some of your favorite moments or collaborations from past Hookahvilles?

CS: Both times with Bobby (Weir) were great.

EM: You’d probably get different answers depending who you ask in the band, but I think all of us would probably agree that it was pretty cool to have Bob sit in with us. A bunch of us in the band played in Dead cover bands before all this, so it was kind of weird to be playing a Dead song with the guy that wrote it.

CS: At the place I saw my first Grateful Dead show (Buckeye Lake). "Gimme Shelter" with Little Feat.

EM: That was one of my peak experiences of my life, singing that with Shawn Murphy from Little Feat.

SS: I got to sit in with Little Feat, so that’s probably my big one.

EM: Anytime Leftover Salmon comes anywhere near us I have so much fun. Those guys are just the ultimate in friendly, cool, awesome musicians Every time we come anywhere near them, or do a show with them or get to see them on an off night or whatever, it is one of my favorite experiences of the year. They are just so much fun to hang out with. Except for Vince, he’s a bastard. (laughs)

A lot of modern bands that play improvisational music have left behind the roots of the jamband scene, like jazz, blues, and bluegrass, and have jumped head first into the world of electronica and techno music. Your music seems to have withstood this trend, what do you think about this trend and do you see yourselves writing songs that are like this?

CS: I don’t think any of us really listen to much of that kind of music. We just incorporate stuff we like, so I don’t think we hate that kind of stuff but it’s just not our style. I guess if one of us for some reason started to really get into electronic dance music we might incorporate it, but at this point I don’t. We sort of incorporate the music we understand.

SS: We don’t really follow any trends of any sort. Maybe that is valid that you call that a trend in the jamband world, but I still don’t even know what the jamband world is because we have been around for twice as long as that terminology has been in existence. I’m not saying we’re not a jamband and I hate it when bands say, "We’re not really a jamband." I just think it’s funny.

You haven’t released a studio album since Ohio Grown. Are you currently working on a new album or have plans to return to the studio soon?

CS: We don’t have any definite plans. Whenever we can find the time and the money we might. Recently, we did a solo album with Dave, it was like his Dave Katz CD project, that we recorded in our own office, which is an old nursing home. It worked out really well for a studio. We just brought in an engineer and equipment and that seemed to work so maybe we’ll try that next time.

What is your songwriting process like? Do all the members of the band bring songs and ideas to the table or does the majority of the songwriting come for 1 or 2 members?

EM: Dave and I are mainly responsible for most of the songs that are originals. Dave and I don’t write together. I come up with songs that are in various states of completion or incompletion and then I bring them to the band at some sound check or rehearsal if we happen to be having one. Then, depending on the song and the style of the song I’ll either ask for lots of help or demand that everybody do exactly what I tell them to do. (laughs)

Regardless of how much or how little help I need in finishing a song this band is so creative and full of very aggressively creative musicians that inevitably it becomes way more than what I can even imagine it to be in the first place. I think I’m pretty good at pre-hearing songs, but when the band gets a hold of them it is really a wonderful thing for me to get to see where it ends up because it is usually way more powerful than I could have ever expected, and I know that has not much to do with me at that point so it’s kind of nice. Dave is pretty good at coming up with near completed songs and giving us a general idea of what to do and the same sort of thing happens. Every now and then Eric (Eric Lanese Hookah’s drummer) writes some songs. Cliff comes up with obscure, somewhat obscure, covers to do from time to time. Steve is no help whatsoever. (everyone laughs and Steve pats himself on the back)

Hookah has always been an independent band. Has a major record label ever approached you and at this point would you even consider signing with one?

CS: We are not totally opposed to it, but the only thing that we would need a record company for would be promotion and distribution. We have no problem printing up and selling our own CDs. It’s exciting to be in this era of the internet that bands don’t really need a record company that much anymore. Record companies have been so evil over the years and have ripped off so many musicians that it’s cool to see them scrambling to try to survive.

EM: I think the clichhat you always hear about is creative control and you picture some dude in a suit in the actual recording studio telling the band how to record their songs and what to play, but it is so much more than that. I’ve heard these stories from other bands we’ve played with and there is so much more that can go on and ruin your musical life way beyond the simple recording of songs. Getting to tour when you want to or stop touring when you want to or what you say on stage, things that you say in between songs. Sometimes we see bands open up for us that are on a label and you can just tell that they are required, because they signed something, to say this specific thing after the third song. That would drive me crazy! And also play a song order maybe, you never know how much they are controlling what you do it’s not just the songs themselves.

Where do you see the future of the band heading?

SS: Hopefully more of the same. We like being at the level we are at. We don’t mind success by any means, nobody does. I’ve always been happy with the fact that we can work on any level. Whether it be a huge Hookahville thing, or a big club like this (the Newport Music Hall), or a dive bar. Sometimes the dive bars are better than the half empty clubs or something like that. I just like working on every level.

EM: Versatility is a good thing to have in your resume.

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