Ekoostik Hookah to bring the jams to Tangier

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Ekoostik Hookah,The Ohio-based band improvisational treatment of psychedelic rock n roll, blues, funk, jazz and bluegrass layered with rich harmonies are from left, Eric Sargent, Dave Katz, Phil Risco, Steve Sweney, Eric Lanese.

The term “jam band” is a fairly loaded one for many music lovers.

For detractors, it’s a catch-all term for those annoying bands that, you know, jam: playing extended versions of their (often already lengthy) songs, filled with copious improvisation and solos as they dabble in a variety of musical styles.

For fans, “jam band” is a catch-all term for all those groovy, crazy-talented, musically eclectic bands that never play the same song the same way twice, whose tunes make them want to do their chicken dances, often engendering an obsessively devoted audience that records concerts and travels far and wide to see said bands.

While an objective observer might say there’s some truth in those common definitions, for Dave Katz, keyboardist, singer and songwriter for the long-running Columbus-based jam band Ekoostik Hookah, the term has little to do with the actual bands performing the actual music.

“I think a big part of it is the fans themselves,” Katz said from the road on his way to a show in Kokomo, Ill. The tour, which also features guitarist Steve Sweeney, drummer Eric Lanese, singer and guitarist Eric Sargent and bassist Phil Risko, comes to Akron’s Tangier on Saturday night.

“They come together at these shows as if it’s a family type of thing. Not like every single person there knows everybody, but you’re going there for a common interest, and like anything that has a common interest, you immediately have something to latch on to and something to talk about.”

Katz also noted that many jam band fans are willing to travel hours to see their favorite bands at action-packed festivals, and meet up with folks they may have previously met only online, extending the familial feelings and fan camaraderie. In the old days (i.e. before the Internet ran our lives) the jam band community also bonded through tape swapping, comparing and contrasting favorite versions of songs with a nearly obsessive-compulsive and occasionally competitive zeal.

Katz, 46, who grew up in Shaker Heights and now lives in Schuylerville, N.Y., has a valid point about the catch-all term. Bands that are commonly called “jam bands” can cover a lot of musical ground. “A jam band can be a bluegrass band, a jazz band, a rock band, a psychedelic band, a blues band. It can be a whole host; hell, a reggae band,” he said.

The southern blues-rock band Gov’t Mule doesn’t sound much like the funky and experimental organ trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, who don’t sound a lot like the jaunty Americana-leaning String Cheese Incident. But all of those bands are appreciated by the same fans and could easily share a stage and … wait for it … jam together.

“There is the common theme of that there are jams within the songs and not to play the same show every night, and you tend to never play any song exactly the way you played it before. … It’s a community of fans that like the bands that fall into that category and there’s so many genres that can be covered in that category.

“Our band in and of itself covers a lot of genres. We’re not a bluegrass band but we play some songs that are bluegrass songs. We kind of cover a lot of different things so you can’t pigeonhole us into one genre, but you can call us a jam band because of the type of crowds we play to,” Katz said.

“I feel like our band really focuses on the song first and the jam second. Not 100 percent of the time because some songs are built around jams. But the majority are songs first, and then the jam just happens as we learn the song, and as it progresses we get into jamming the song. Many jam bands are really geared towards the jam part of the song, which is fine, but I think we’re really a song-first kind of band,” he said.

Ekoostik Hookah started informally and organically in 1991 at an open-stage night in Columbus with Katz, Sweeney, and former members John Mullins and Cliff Starbuck, all of whom were in other bands at the time. After several weeks, the “open-stage night” became the not-quite-yet-formed band’s regular night, and the members realized they had something.

They took the name Ekoostik Hookah (pronounced “Acoustic Hookah”) in part because of a big brass hookah owned by Katz, and chose the phonetic spelling of “acoustic,” which features the schwa, a sort of backwards, upside-down “E,” to delineate between non-electric music and the definition of the word “acoustic” which is “relating to sound, hearing, or the study of sound.”

Over two-plus decades, the band has kept the bulk of its business in-house, eschewing labels and outside influence and preferring to remain staunchly independent. In 1994, the band birthed a music festival, Hookahville. The first one was planned primarily to scrape up enough money for Katz to buy a sump-pump for the rural property he was living on at the time, but has grown over the years into a twice-a-year event centered on Memorial Day and Labor Day. For the past two years, the event now known as The Ville has taken place at Clay’s Park & Resort near Canal Fulton.

The band has nine studio albums, the most recent being 2013’s Brij, its first all-studio album since Ohio Grown in 2002. The break was due to a surprise lineup change; co-founding member and major songwriter John Mullins, who left the band for a decade and returned in 2006, abruptly left again during the second day of recording. This forced the band to draw exclusively from Katz’s material for the album, which was briefly shelved before Eric “Sarge” Sargent joined the group and pushed the others to release the album.

Brij contains all the hallmarks of a jam band album. Seven of the 10 tunes stretch past the seven-minute mark. The nine-minute opener You’ll Never Find rides a jaunty, toe-tapping rock groove and contains a lengthy solo, while Black Mamba sports a funk-bass riff in 6/8 time before Katz stretches out on the organ and revered guitarist Steve Sweeney whips out some quick runs over the jazz-flavored midsection.

Aside from the requisite “jams,” the album also contains a taut 3½-minute, tongue-in-cheek, rockabilly rave-up Anne Marie, and a harmony-laced ballad, Sail Away, steeped in the 1970s singer/songwriter tradition of Carole King, James Taylor, Christopher Cross and other sensitive soft-rock troubadours. Sure, the tune stretches for nearly 10 minutes, but it also contains a lovely, lyrical solo from Sweeney that surely will inspire plenty of air guitar among the fan base.

But as with many bands in the genre, the recorded versions are a mere jump-off point for the shows, and many of the songs have been in rotation in Ekoostik Hookah’s set lists for a while.

Katz admits he has no idea when the band will head back to the studio or what songs they will record, because they have a “huge” library of unrecorded tunes from which to draw and besides, the records aren’t where fans get the true Ekoostik Hookah experience.

“We’re a live band. We play music. That’s what we like to do. … The studio is kind of a grueling process but playing is fun,” he said.

“I’ve always said about anything I do in my life, ‘If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it.’ I like to try and stick to that. We go out and play for people, and it’s work but it’s play. You’re playing instruments, it should be fun, it should be fun for the band and it should be fun for people coming to see the band, and you have that direct connection on any given night with whoever is there,” Katz said. “For me that’s what I enjoy the most.”

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.

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