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12:00 AM Monday, 10/30/00 |   |

TAKE A CLOSE LOOK AT EKOOSTIK HOOKAH and you won't see any industrial-sized machines running it. There's no nuclear-powered major agency or monolithic recordcompany. It's just some guys from Columbus, Ohio, who make their own CDs and drive an old Ford van.

That sounds like a regional band, typically. But ekoostik hookah not only packs clubs four nights a week, it also regularly promotes its own Hookahville outdoor festival dates. This spring, it headlined a show that included RatDog, Deep Banana Blackout, and Arlo Guthrie. This fall, it hosted CPR featuring David Crosby, Dickey Betts Band, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, among others. Still, the band does things the old-fashioned way: touring, touring and more touring.

With a "ridiculous amount of miles" on its van, ekoostik hookah takes leave of Columbus for four-day turnaround trips, each time netting more fans. And the jamsters, with their Midwestern spin on rock, jazz, blues, etc., are looking at hosting 18,000 at next spring's Hookahville.

Dave Katz and Ed McGee, the two songwriters of the sextet, spoke with POLLSTAR about how a band that started at a weekly jam session in 1991 has quietly built the biannual gathering. One thing that's different from the Phish or Widespread Panic festivals is these guys do three-and-a-half-hour slots on both evenings, with plenty of fancy lights and video screens.

Another difference is there's no promoter. With the help of its manager as well as its full- time festival coordinator, Pat McCarville, the band decides where the festival takes place, gets the right security and help from town officials, provides quality backstage services for its guest artists and even makes certain of such things as a "quiet campground" for families.

That kind of control has made ekoostik hookah both popular and an enigma. From its hesitancy to sign a major record deal to determining each festival's lineup, the band's decision- making has given it a feeling of self-sufficiency and a steady, healthy growth rate that is reportedly about to go big time.

"It's such an incredible feeling to take the rewards that you receive whether it's crowd size, playing a new, big venue or a successful Hookahville. We get to take that reward as our own," McGee said. "I think if you had some big label that was pushing you, it would be great to play in front of thousands of people all the time, but are they really your people? Where do they come from? Are they going to come back? You don't know. ... We're always sure and certain of what's going on because it's all our own work that's doing it."

It's not, as McGee said, that the group is a "hell-bent-for-leather-never-will-we-sign- anything kind of a band." Manager Jeff Spencer told POLLSTAR the members wish to have artistic control, and a recent trend in record contracts may make the band more amenable to a deal. In the meantime, CD sales, without any major record company or distribution support, have reached 80,000.

  • ekoostik hookah

    Eric Lanese
    Steve Sweney
    Dave Katz
    Cliff Starbuck
    Ed McGee
    John Polansky
    October 30, 2000


The first Hookahville was a 1994 campout at keyboardist and co-founder Katz's house. The band felt like playing in the woods and it decided to see if it could raise $300 for a water pump for Katz's well. Instead, it got 800 fans from word of mouth. McGee opened and was asked to join the band three years later.

Now, Hookahville, held lately at Buckeye Lake Music Center in Thornville, has grown to a major three-day Ohio event (two fully stocked with music), replete with medical tent, 80-100 vendors, an information kiosk and a children's play area.

"We figured nobody else was putting us on the kind of stage we were capable of putting ourselves on," Katz said, "and nobody else was going to go out of their way to have us share the stage with Bob Weir or whatever. We had to do it for ourselves.

"At some point in time, maybe we will do it in conjunction with the major companies or something like that," he said, "but we realize we can put on a show that's as big and impressive- sounding and -looking as any other show, really, so we just do it."

And what the heck, Hookahville began with an urge to play in the woods, so what if the band wanted to play on the beach? So last year, it hosted a weeklong event in Negril, Jamaica. Sure enough, there were 250 hookah-philes barefootin' on the sands. Once again, this is not your average unsigned band.

"It's definitely different than when I was Ed McGee, pizza driver," the musician said. "I'm just trying to enjoy it and try not to let it get to my head, but it may be too late."

He said that fellow bands are breaking up lately, but with hookah it's "survival of the stupidest."

"Playing the shows all the time, as hard of work as it is, is fun and it's nice to see the fan base growing in all sorts of areas," he said. "If we ever do sign some sort of deal or if it ever gets so big that the tree that's been growing is way up there in all the weather and wind, it'll be nice to know that the roots are firmly planted. I think the problem with signing a deal too soon or getting big too soon no matter how it happens is if you're not locked into the ground somewhere, you'll get blown away."


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