ekoostik hookah, PromoWest Pavilion, Columbus, OH- 10/31
I'm guessing that for as long as there have been rock concerts, Halloween
night has held a special place in the hearts of musicians and fans alike.
On the jamband calendar, it plays second fiddle to only New Year's Eve, the
pinnacle of the live show pyramid. The concept of Halloween itself has rock
& roll written all over it – the costumes, the revelry, the macabre
theatrics. On Halloween night this year, ekoostik hookah did justice to the
holiday and filled the collective candy bag of an enthusiastic PromoWest
Pavilion crowd with plenty of tricks and treats.
The first thing that struck me upon arriving at PromoWest was that there was
definitely a "big show" vibe in the air. More than just a usual night at a
club, there was a feeling that this show meant something. The band was in
the spirit of things with each member in a costume of their choosing, most
notably drummer Eric Lanese as Evil Knievel (I mean, really…is there
anybody cooler than Evil Knievel?). Energy was high, and hookah seemed to
feed off of the emotion being sent their way by the audience from the onset.
An appropriate "Alexander" opened the show with its ghostly themes. The
original has dropped in frequency since the inception of "Alexander II" a
few years ago, so it's always great to hear it and it fits well into the
opening slot. And as is usually the case, Steve Sweney proved that he plays
every song like it's the encore. Usually, I turn to the people I'm with at a
hookah show during the second song and say, "I can't believe he's playing
this solo during the second song of the first set!" On this night, I did it
one song earlier.
"Raging River" kept the energy high, and its well-paced nature indicated
that the band was comfortable and beyond any nervousness two songs into the
set. It turned out to be a good appetizer for a new tune in the hookah
rotation, "Fantastic." This song continues to develop and is showing real
potential, even in comparison to versions played a month ago. The soft
opening still leaves something to be desired, but the composed sections are
taking on lives of their own.
The next two songs represented the first of two high points in the opening
set. "Octofrye" dripped with it's usual sinister charm, and was unexpected
in the middle of the first set. It's the kind of song that hookah should
play every year on Halloween. The band then departed the fright-night feel
for a ripping version of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." Cliff Starbuck
delivered the vocals soulfully, and it was at this point that I noticed that
each member of the band was being incredibly active. Dave Katz's fill-ins
and solos seemed turned up a notch, and Ed McGee was playing creative rhythm
bits and leads that really thickened the sound.
"Thief" brought things back down to earth a bit. While I enjoy Sweney's
solos in it, the song is a little too poppy for my tastes. The homespun
groove of "Deal With It" regained my interest, however, and I thought we
were possibly looking at the set closer as it is arguably Katz's best new
song and also the closing number on hookah's upcoming studio release. But
thankfully the set didn't end, and Katz stayed on acoustic for "Loner." The
crowd stumbled through a sing-along on the early verses but it finished
powerfully. "Loner" is probably the most recognizable song in hookah's
catalog, and at many points in their career it's been the song most
regularly played. In the last two years, though, they've shelved it more
often, helping rebuild the mystique of their original anthem.
"Loner" eight songs into the first set usually means you're headed into set
break, but in this situation it served as a lead-in to the second high point
of the set, a new cover and a new instrumental. In getting back to the theme
of the evening, McGee lead the band through a fuzzy-sweet reading of
Hendrix's "Burning of the Midnight Lamp." The song had a murky, under-water
feel to it that made a great presentation in conjunction with the light show
(which was well-above the hookah standard), and a slow-burn howl from Sweney
on guitar. Katz's "Abdega Gaga" followed to close the set. Like "Fantastic,"
this funky new rapid-fire instrumental is growing with each playing and it
allows everyone in the band a window with which to showcase their skills.
This particular version may have been the longest to date.
The band came out for the second set more than ready to put the finishing
touches on an already-impressive performance. In the opening tuning, it was
apparent that this set would have a more twisted feel to it in recognition
of Halloween, and I recognized the first of a couple of teasings of "Tubular
Bells," more widely known as the theme from The Exorcist.
So if you're a fan of ekoostik hookah, and you're at their Halloween show,
and they're about to open the second set, there's really only one song you
want to hear. Sometimes in these situations, it doesn't work out and the
band you're seeing will play something else for whatever reason. hookah must
have sensed the anticipation, however, because a space-filled opening soon
took the familiar form of "Slipjig Through the Poppy Fields." "Slipjig" is
hookah's true epic, a mind-bending "You Enjoy Myself" and "Dark Star" rolled
into one. This version was made all the more better by a new cover of
Classic IV's "Spooky" cleverly inserted in the middle. The segue from
"Spooky" back into "Slipjig" was seamless, and the sandwich stood out as the
highlight of the set.
"Float (Epilogue)," a reworking of the hookah classic "Float" took on the
task of following up "Slipjig." This was actually an excellent choice, as
the song had completely disappeared from the rotation until the new version
resurfaced this fall. The original was a favorite of hookah fans, so the
Epilogue version has been highly anticipated. Having heard the new
incarnation a few times now, I still prefer the original. I like the playful
blues jam in the first compared to the darker jam in the epilogue, and I
enjoyed the rhythm section breakdown that often lead to unexpected segues
that has since been removed. But as mentioned, the new "Float" is much
darker than the original, and this version helped maintain the strangeness
established by the opener. I'm anxious to see which directions this song
will go in the coming months.
"Back Seat" came next and kept the off-kilter, spooky feel going. While
topically it's not a scary song, the grinding feel of the guitars makes you
giddy and uncertain in a horror-movie-at-the-drive-in sort of way. What came
next in the show was a complete surprise, not only because it's rarely
played but because it was a complete and pleasant departure from the creepy
storyline that had been running through the set. Sweney and Starbuck stepped
up for a melodic and thoughtful "Two Part Invention." The subtle beauty of
the classical piece commanded the attention of the entire audience, which
listened in respectful quiet.
The interlude was brief, however, as the deep space and scary tuning resumed
before taking shape in "Spiders." While "Slipjig" walked away with top
honors for the set and show, "Spiders" finished a close second in both
categories. In comparison to the song's humble beginnings several years ago,
this was "Spiders" on steroids, filled with frightening vocals and effects
for the holiday, and several teases including a string of Doors lyrics and
Friday the 13th's theme music. This "Spiders" was so strong that it
overshadowed the "Keepin' Time" that closed the set, which is generally
unheard of. The band seemed understandably exhausted as they came out to
encore with a tongue-in-cheek "Bone," which made perfect sense if you were
there to see McGee's skeleton costume.
As I waited to filter out of the venue, passing butterflies and Borg and
Captain Morgan and other costumed fans, I reviewed my setlist and thought to
myself that they had really pulled it off. I had been critical until
recently that hookah was playing too many slower songs in their sets, and
that I hadn't seen enough shows where they had grabbed me by my collar and
dragged me, happily, through a raging second set. Halloween night at
PromoWest, they really delivered. I kept thinking to myself that they had
closed the second set with "Keepin' Time," but that the show had been so
good that they didn't even really need to. To me, that said it all. The
ear-candy had been plentiful and sugary enough to satisfy even the most
discerning sweet tooth, mine included.