By Robert Massie

ekoostik hookah by Robert Massie
When you stop and think about it, it really was no surprise that ekoostik hookah decided that the beginning of 2006 would serve as an extended checkpoint on a marathon trek that has spanned fourteen years, nine band members, and an astounding 2,000 shows. Judging by current jamband standards, this decision was actually long overdue. Now, don't get it wrong – this isn't meant to insinuate that average fans, let alone the hookah insiders, weren't stunned by the news in the now infamous August 31st press release. This dreaded document told the media, online community, and hardcore "hookah heads" alike that Ohio's homegrown heroes "will take a short break from playing as ekoostik hookah before returning in early spring 2006." In reality, the news of the break from the road really wasn't as much of a shock as the fan reactions on several internet message boards. Behind the veil of the computer, several cyber fire starters authored posts like "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Hiatuses are SO Overrated." Although it's hard to say whether the band deserved a certain bit of razzing for taking a road so heavily traveled in recent years, the general public reaction focused less on the history and hard work that have gone into making ekoostik hookah such true innovators in today's music scene and more on politics and rumors.

Ed McGee by Robert Massie
A few weeks later, just as the virtual gossip was dying down, the plot thickened when a September 28th announcement from percussionist Johnny "Starcatt" Polansky revealed that this wasn't just an extended vacation. Polansky stated "I can no longer go on as a part of this organization," and the band became a quintet overnight, after ten years without a lineup change. While many fans agreed that the loss had still left the creative core of the band intact, others started speculating about impending future changes. If Polansky's announcement was the match sparking the controversy, then Ed McGee's following statement served as the tanker truck full of gasoline that set the community ablaze. On October 24th, McGee released a personal message that stated "New Year's Eve will be my last show with ekoostik hookah." Once again, speculation about the factors leading to this decision and the resulting state of the band began to spin out of control. Many appreciative fans seemed to simply desire clarification, yet there are still questions that simply cannot be answered.

ekoostik hookah :: 12.31.05 by Scott Preston
At this point ekoostik hookah's future is absolutely uncertain. But, like every bend in the river of life, the current flows the way it's meant to. For every change, there's bound to be a purpose and a reason. And, often times, these intents and meanings aren't revealed until the time is right. For ekoostik hookah, that time is just not here yet. However, with the arrival of the sabbatical, now is a great opportunity to fondly revisit many of the often-overlooked contributions ekoostik hookah has made to jam music in general. From the early days of the band, a prevalent do-it-yourself attitude set the groundwork for new thoughts about musical exploration, the music business, and the development of an entire hookah-centered subculture. They have served such an important role in the evolution of the Jamband Scene, the independent production concept, and festival culture that it's difficult to imagine how different things would be today without their impact. Simply put, ekoostik hookah has been touring and paving the way since members of many modern-day jam bands were in middle school. So, after no less than 627 passionate performances of fan favorite "Backwoods Rose," 24 successful "Hookahville" festivals, and literally hundreds of thousands of miles logged through over 30 states (and 3 countries), the band deserves to focus on their accomplishments without bothering to speculate too much about their future. One thing's for sure, whatever happens next, ekoostik hookah's legacy and contributions will live on unchanged through the impact of their music and the passion of their fans.


ekoostik hookah
To understand the real significance of ekoostik hookah's role, it's necessary to be familiar with their history and the changes that have lead them to where they are today. The early 90's version of the group featured keyboardist Dave Katz, guitarist Steve Sweney, bassist Cliff Starbuck, singer/guitarist John Mullins, soon-to-depart drummer Steve Frye, and not-to-last-long percussionist Don Safrenek. Frye was replaced in 1993 by current drummer Eric Lanese, but the group decided not to replace Safrenek until Polansky joined up in 2005. From the early days of the band, ekoostik hookah seemed to tap into something that people truly savored. According to Katz, "Initially, it grew out of more or less an open stage type of thing. Did we have something special? I don't know, I guess it always comes down to the atmosphere created by the music, created by the fans – the people hanging out at the bar that night. It was always easygoing and fun, and I think that was special." Starbuck seems to agree. "I think it was a good combination of people, but I also think it filled a need in this area at that time. In 1991, there was nothing else really happening, no band of this kind that was original." The band proceeded to develop their repertoire, to gain popularity, and to gel into a position where they started to impact the local music scene and to become a great draw at local bars. Cliff Starbuck remembers it well. "I don't think we were conscious on any level about the popular music world at the time. We were just getting out there and playing the way we had learned how to play. We weren't consciously shaping our sound to fill any void – it just seemed to work out that way."

Cliff Starbuck by Robert Massie
The band continued to gain steam, and touring became a real possibility. Thanks to Columbus, Ohio's location in "the heart of it all," branching out to a new major city was usually only a two or three hour drive away. That's the way Cliff Starbuck sees it. "We have a good central location here. We have like 12 major colleges within three hours of us here in Columbus. You're three hours from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati. It's an ideal place to be." Dave Katz knew the right plan of attack at the time. "I think we took the right steps, in that we kind of circled out from Columbus. We didn't feel like we could take on the country two months after we started or anything like that. We took it naturally - we'd build Columbus, then build all the cities around Columbus and the college towns. Being so centrally located was great because our fans from Columbus could pretty much make it anywhere we played."

hookah fans :: 12.31.05 by Scott Preston
Those fans in Columbus turned the corner and became hookah diehards, and just as things seemed to be taking off, an announcement changed the very face of the band. John Mullins had been let go, and ekoostik hookah had a huge decision to make. The next step was pivotal, and the decision to hire Ed McGee was made with confidence. The decision seemed to pay off rather quickly. Dave Katz recalls, "There was a steady growth all through the early 1990's to the end of the John Mullins era. We lost a little momentum when we let John go and we picked up Ed, but that was back soon. Ed writes songs that people can relate to, and that picked things right back up quickly." McGee was a hometown acquaintance who was very familiar with ekoostik hookah. "I was actually a big fan of the band long before I was in it," he recollects. "I was into Steve Sweney and Cliff Starbuck's former band Supplication in 1989-1990, and I knew Dave Katz from Local Color. Being as into the Grateful Dead as I was, I was attracted to the style of music. And I liked hookah's originals – I really got into them at their very start. I was blindsided when they invited me to join the band. I mean, it really was crazy and I was excited by the notion, but also a big part of me was upset that John Mullins was leaving."

Ed McGee by Robert Massie
With McGee adding new life and direction, ekoostik hookah was starting to demonstrate a huge potential for success. With this new era, people began following ekoostik hookah all over the Midwest, trading their shows, and reciting the lyrics that impacted their lives in different forms of homage. According to Dave Katz, "It's hard to pinpoint when we became truly sustainable. From the get-go, people were latching onto songs – John Mullins and I wrote songs that people could relate to, and Ed McGee also does this so well. People would see us, and they would go home at the end of the night and remember the words, even though they'd only heard the song once. An obvious example would be a song like "Loner." People relate to that song. It's a very real kind of synopsis of my life in my late teens, and it's something that, the way it's written and the way I sing it, anybody can listen to it and say, 'Wow, that sounds like me and my parents.' I think it's a matter of relating to the people that are listening to you." McGee remembers this same phenomenon with humility. "It was tremendous the first time I noticed people singing along with my songs. I couldn't believe it, and it still means so much to me. To see someone in a state I've never been to singing the lyrics of one of my songs is just amazing – probably one of the best feelings that come along with this job, when I think about it." McGee does admit that these new experiences weren't without their share of new obligations. As fans started to keep set lists and pay much closer attention to new material, McGee felt some pressure. "I've always written songs at night, but now I had to write good songs at night. It was all about living up to this new responsibility – this was my business after all."

Steve Sweney :: Hookahville 2005
By Robert Massie
That business was founded on a do-it-yourself attitude that set a new model for independent recording and event production. Cliff Starbuck explains, "It was always our philosophy to avoid paying someone else to tell us how to do the things we want to do our way. Also, we couldn't really afford to pay anyone starting out, and by the time we could afford to, we already had our organization in place. Dave Katz remembers deliberately leading the band towards self-sufficiency. "I had been in other groups before, and I had traveled to Europe. I had seen a lot of aspects of the music business including a very dark side. I absolutely went into this band with a very steadfast idea that I was not going to get signed or anything like that. Of course, I wasn't in it to become a rock star or anything like that. I just wanted to play the music." Then as the organization grew, certain consequences of the group's philosophies became evident. When the topic shifts to the advantages of this independent game plan, Starbuck recalls "The true consequence of our DIY approach was that things became more sustainable and lasting." Katz is a bit more specific. "The advantages are just having control over what you're doing. You play when you want to play, not when someone tells you that you have to. We have control of our music and control of our lives." Both agree there was also a downside. "I'm sure we limited ourselves in certain ways. I think we became more regional because of the fact we were learning things as we went along," admits Starbuck. Katz volunteers, "It's not the quickest way to the top. Money is harder to come across. You trade off the exposure when you take things in your own hands, but you get the control." As for Ed McGee, he joined after some of the framework had been laid down, but he still experienced all of the ins and outs of the organization. McGee believes, "The advantages of the DIY attitude were that we were so much closer to everything and were more aware of our successes. My philosophy has always been that music is for sharing. Maybe it sounds funny, but it's something I hold close to my heart. I think, for us, the way we went about things allowed us to share the music in a way we wanted to."

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