Hookahville, Frontier Ranch Music Center, Kirkersville OH- 5/23 & 24
Hookahville. Hookahville? Hookahville! C'mon now, say it with me. I've heard it uttered with giggles of delight and squeals of excitement by legions of dedicated hookah fans. I'd never made it though, but this year was my year. Now in its nineteenth installment, Hookahville has found a permanent home deep in the heart of Ohio, and the ekoostik hookah fanbase, at Frontier Ranch Music Center, a lush rolling Midwestern farm with lots of nice trees and beautiful camping area. By the time I arrived on Friday afternoon, the campgrounds were already swollen with excited showgoers ready for what is one of the region's most highly anticipated festivals each year. Hookah drummers Eric Lanese and Johnny "Starrcat" Polanksy roared into the ranch, leading the annual "Bugs In Your Teeth" motorcycle ride, as I ambled the short distance from my site to the stage as the opening notes of Particle, the festival's preliminary set began to waft through the air.
The concert venue area of the farm, a long, flat, playing field lined with greenery to the left and campgrounds, easily within view and earshot of the stage, to the right. At the end of the field, a long row of food and craft vendors stretched on until it ran into more sprawling campgrounds. All in all, it was one of the best laid out sites and one of the most well-thrown festivals that I've ever attended. The stage was gigantic, complete with a jumbo video screen and rows upon rows of lights, reminding the audience that Phish light extraordinaire Chris Kuroda would be on hand once the sun went down. At the moment however, the sun was shining brightly, but not as brightly as Particle who dazzled the audience with their upbeat assault of spacey sounds. This quartet is a band to be reckoned with, and you can expect their name to get bigger and bigger in the near future. Their sound, anchored by a driving bass and drums combo, at times reeks of techno, at other times it seems that they're playing the space funk Phish only dreamed of. Guitarist Charlie Hitchcock alternates between delivering mesmerizing waves of distortion and wailing with rapid-fire ferocity. Keyboard wizard Steve Molitz provides the most jaw dropping entertainment however, constantly bouncing back and forth in time, dizzying the audience with an onslaught of riveting keyboard sounds. Their set closed with a rocking high-octane cover of the Beverly Hills Cop theme, keeping the audience dancing and smiling in high numbers. Particle would prove to be the best set of the day, one witnessed by only the earliest birds to the festival.
The stage was then bequeathed to rock and roll dinosaurs Blue Oyster Cult. They delivered a three-guitar attack delivering the same brand of intense seventies arena rock they are known for. "Buck's Boogie", a rollicking instrumental, was delivered at a furious pace, one blazing guitar solo after another. The set reached its anticipated climax with the closing combination of "Godzilla" and "Don't Fear the Reaper", each coming complete with a guitar adorned with the song's namesake. "Reaper" was what the audience was waiting for, and they reacted accordingly, it hooting, hollering, and singing along with all their might. The band then left the stage, and most of the audience began to return to the campgrounds, when the group reemerged to a must sparser audience for their encore. The old school New Orleans funk of the Neville Brothers came next and the group brought their good time soul to an audience ready to get down. The opening combo of "Hey Pocky Way" and "Voodoo Woman" set a pace that would never cool. Their covers of the Allman Brothers "Midnight Rider", voiced by Art "Poppa Funk" Neville, and oldies classic "Fever", sung by Aaron, delighted the audience, which was beginning to swell, as folks kept streaming into Frontier Ranch. A bouncy "Aiko Aiko" also gave everyone in attendance a good reason to boogie. But somehow the crowd seemed to be salivating for something a little different.
Then, as the afternoon sun started to fade, ekoostik hookah took the stage and I witnessed a show of devotion by a dedicated homegrown audience that blew my mind. Very rarely have I ever been around such an intense audience connection with what was happening onstage. Coming into the festival, I felt like hookah was a mid-level jamband just like all the rest. Now I realized that one thing that sets them apart is their fiercely devoted regional fan base. Unlike most bands, who desperately want to leave their roots behind, I would understand if ekoostik hookah never chose to leave the state again. In the land of Ohio, hookah is king. Their first set was highlighted by an appearance by Ivan, Cyril, and Charles Neville, performing the Neville's "Music". The hookah faithful gave them a rousing welcome, the crowd had swollen to more than four times what it had been for the prior set, now somewhere in the reaches of seven or eight thousand. "Raging River", from the band's most recent release, was a crowd favorite, all those around me throwing their arms in the air in unison with each chorus. Leslie Snyder and Beth McGee Hall joined the group and added sweet and lilting vocals to the Indigo Girls song, "Kid Fears". The set came to a close with a rollicking "Keppin' Time", which edged it's way in slowly, Katz on acoustic guitar, drifting through a rumbling drums segment before barreling to a climactic finish. The band left the stage to let the sun completely set, and many wandered towards the vendors in search of refreshment before the evening's final set.
hookah reemerged after a brief set-break and kicked off with the back to back combo of fan favorites "Spiders" and "Schwa". Chris Kuroda manned the light-board for the show, and it was incredible to see how well he lights another band. His work carried this "Schwa" over the top, Kuroda as tight on the changes as he would be if he was lighting "Mike's Song." Bass player Cliff Starbuck, the group's most underrated member, stepped to the mic for a thumping take on "John Henry". Starbuck spends his time locked in tightly with Hookah's percussion tandem, providing a rock solid groove for the front line to play off. McGee and Katz added their signature voices to the set next, on "Dragonfly" and "Deal With It". The closing sandwich, "Loner > Grass > Loner" sent the Hookah faithful into an ecstatic frenzy, as the tune built up to an enormous ending. The band left the stage, and three vocal microphones were set up, as Hookah returned with three friends in tow. The special guests provided the telltale background vocals to the Lou Reed classic "Take A Walk On the Wild Side" voiced by Hookah percussionist Johnny Polansky. Then, at the stroke of eleven, the band was gone, leaving their devoted fans, to their own devices to party throughout the night.
The next morning brought bright sunshine, and by early afternoon, most of the revelers still sleeping off Friday's fun, the Organ and Drum duo of Marco Benevento and Joe Russo opened Saturday's festivities. The funky organ sounds, held down by Russo's rock solid beat, sounded great. The vibe was low key however, much of the festival still recovering and those who made it to the stage area spent their time lounging in the sunshine. Russo stayed behind the kit and Robert Walter and his 20th Congress took the stage for their own in-your-face funk attack. This band relys heavily on its ability to make anyone within earshot shake their ass, and for those who made it out of their tents in time, their asses were vigorously shaken. Russo anchors a driving rhythm section that propels the group along, Walter's keys harmonizing with Cochemea Gastelum's sax throughout many of the upbeat jams. All in all the 20th Congress rocked the audience with their high-octane brand of dance music. Their cover of John Lennon's "Instant Karma", ushered in by Will Bernard's enigmatic slide guitar and brought to release in the chorus by Walter's roaring organ would prove to be one of the day's many highlights.
Guitar phenomenon Derek Trucks led his ensemble to the stage for the day's next set. This band mixes up all kinds of music, and if you expect to see the same in-your-face southern guitar crunch that you would expect from the Allmans, then you will be disappointed. Instead, the band blends an assortment of sounds into a happy mixture of blues, jazz, rock and world rhythms. All told, it's an interesting musical hodgepodge that showcases keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge nearly as much as the group's namesake. Vocalist Mike Mattison added soulful vocals to a handful of the group's numbers, including their up tempo set closer, and title track to their current album, Joyful Noise. The song pretty simply sums up what the band is after, a joyful noise. The tried and true bluegrass sound of Old and in the Grey was next, and the audience shouted their reverence, privileged to be in the presence of such bluegrass luminaries. His once red mane now fading, but his voice still strong, it was treat to watch Peter Rowan belt out his songs which have gone on to become staples in this scene and beyond. David Grisman and Vassar Clements dueled back and forth proving that nothing has slowed in their pickin' fingers, blazing through all of the Old and in the Way classics and then some. The audience received a healthy dose of that enlightening high and lonesome sound with vigor. Seeing living legends like Clement, Grisman and Rowan, in the relaxed and cozy atmosphere of a top-notch festival was a treat.
ekoostik hookah returned to the stage for their opening set of the day, sun shining and concert ground beginning to swell once again. Katz's spirited organ playing highlighted "Good Time (Merry Go Round)" the second number of the night. The devoted went nuts for the line, "I can't wait for the day, when we're back on familiar ground," this being the festival's tenth year in existence. The band showed off some of their prog-rock chops for the extended "Alexander > Alexander II", the band's ghostly song cycle. Bassist Cliff Starbuck took over the vocal duties for a thunderous ride on Dylan's "Highway 61". Throughout this number, and the rest of the high energy set, guitarist Steve Sweney stood on the left side of the stage pulling blistering note after note from his golden Les Paul. Singer Ed McGee paid homage to the day job of their light man during "Bone" by quoting from "Big Black Furry Creature From Mars" while Kuroda threw on some of his trademark swirling white lights. The set closer, "Abdega Gaga" was an up-tempo instrumental featuring the audience supplying their own part, at the appropriate moment. To an outsider, like myself, it was a display of connection between a band and their audience found few other places.
A short intermission later, hookah returned to the stage for their final set of the evening. To some, it was overkill, to the devoted, it was the last chance to get down. The band delivered a set chock full of their trademark sound. McGee took one last time to deliver a heartfelt testament to good times in Ohio, with "Pass the Cider, Pass the Rum". The highlight of the set came with the twisting and turning maze of exploration that was "Indica & Sativa > Bottle of Wine > Indica & Sativa > Ecstasy (Feelin' Good)." The band rolled through a few more numbers, but before you knew it, time was up. When they re-emerged for the encore, the backup singers were once again in tow, as was guest drummer Shane Frye. Frye took Eric Lanese's familiar stool while Lanese roamed the front of the stage wearing a giant foam replica of his own head, and a 90210 t-shirt for their cover of the Talking Head's "Life During Wartime". Katz announced the headliners for their Labor Day weekend Festival and the audience roared in approval, George Clinton and Steve Kimock will be there, and you know what? So will I. Say what you might about ekoostik hookah, but visit Hookahville once, and you'll become a lifelong citizen.
Aaron Hawley had fun in Ohio but still can’t stand the Browns.