ekoostik hookah, 123 Pleasant Street, Morgantown WV- 1/30
123 Pleasant Street's three brick rooms were filled to the brim with a blend of hookah faithful and hometown college kids ready to get in out of the cold for a warm night of music. Hookah's ten years of grassroots expansion seem to be beginning to pay great dividends, with much of the audience in town just for the show, a sea of new faces to blend with a few of the Mo-town regulars thrown in for good measure. Morgantown, a stones throw from the band's home state of Ohio, seems to be a continual stop on the group's never ending tour dossier and, through the years, the crowd has grown from gig to gig. This time the house was nearly full with frozen folks just counting down the days until dancing can become a barefoot pastime again.
Without a supporting act, the hookah boys hit the stage early and proceeded to tear into what would be a steaming night of music on an otherwise frigid Friday night. The group opened with "Springtime Again" before quickly getting the bar bopping with the funky strains of the Dave Katz penned "Music". "Blow em Away" followed, and by this time the warming up period for both band and audience was over and engine was revving. "Raging River", from their newest release Ohio Grown was next, and this tune has already been enshrined as a fan favorite. Each refrain found the hookah faithful throwing their arms in the air and bellowing along with Katz and company. Bassist Cliff Starbuck, who often gets lost in the shuffle with his other front line mates, stepped up for vocals on the churning runaway train that is the song "John Henry", my set highlight. Ed McGee's "To Good Friends Past" slowed things down for a minute and let the crowd catch their breath before pummeling into hookah staple "Caribou". This elicited a great deal of bouncing from the already jubilant audience. Say what you will about ekoostik hookah, they and their fans connect. Their audience loves them, and oftentimes it feels like you've stumbled into some strange Ohio-centric netherworld of devotion. Those not hooked directly into the hookah conduit can look around confusedly and wonder what's going on, until one day they find themselves exhibiting the same symptoms. Katz stepped out from behind the piano to strap on an acoustic guitar for the set closing combo of "Three Way Street" and "Hookahville", the later being their hook-laden tribute to their biannual campout held in the heart of the hookah world, central Ohio.
Set break came at the perfect time for the weary to flock to the bar, or out into the dropping temperatures in search of refreshment, before reconvening for a much anticipated second set. I milled about and watched the faithful clamor to get in a song request with McGee or Katz, before running into Trip McClenny. The show was a Sunshine Daydream production, something many music lovers had thought had become a thing of the past but he assured me, as the band retook the stage, that the farm had been saved in the eleventh hour. Tonight's evening with ekoostik hookah was just the tip of the iceberg for a summer full of fine music in the beautiful, if currently snow-covered, mountains of West Virginia. The group took the stage and proved that what we had just witnessed was just an appetizer and now it was time for the main course. The set got underway with very big version of "Viper", gunslinger Steve Sweney pulling any number of searing guitar lines out of his axe. McGee's "Two Sometimes" followed, but simply paled in comparison with what would happen next. The extended "Abdega Gaga > Dragonfly > Abdega Gaga > Dragonfly > Abdega Gaga" combination was some of the most spirited playing that this music journalist has been privileged to witness. Never has hookah impressed me as much as they did as they interwove the uptempo instrumental "Abdega Gaga" with the pumping rock and roll of "Dragonfly". The devoted just about lost it, each time thinking the jam was coming to an end before the band turned another corner passing around the lead role until the audience's heads were spinning swiftly. No sooner would one band member drop the reins, than another would pick them up. Sometimes Sweney steered the ship, other times McGee or Katz, and oftentimes no one at all. It was at these moments that the music seemed its most vital, the band and audience sitting on the same precipice waiting with baited breath to take in the outcome of this bold leap. The outcome tonight was a resounding success, voiced excitedly by the audience at every turn. "My Own Way" and "Get Rhythm" followed to close the door on the second set, but it was the "Abdega / Dragonfly" combo that everyone would leave buzzing about.
The double encore of "Ecstasy" and "Long Live Rock" seemed to complement many of the feelings of those in the brick row house that is 123 Pleasant Street. Those who made the trek with their extended hookah family left happy they did, while the locals began the walk back towards campus assuring themselves that they would be there the next time hookah makes a return trip to the Mountain State. Everyone was just happy to warm their hands and dancing feet by the warm rock and roll fire.
Aaron Hawley saw his shadow, but is in denial about the six more weeks of winter.