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Taken from 411mania (Jun 12, 2010)

Jam Central Station 6.12.10: Hookahville XXXIII Review - Legend's Valley - Thornville, OH

ekoostik hookah brought out some big guns for their thirty-third (!) Hookahville! How did Franti and Gov't Mule fit in with the Ohio Grown ekoostik hookah?

by Jeff Modzelewski

Hey everyone! Hope you're having a great week! I'm finishing up my Bonnaroo planning. One more day of work, then I leave on Wednesday afternoon! I'll be in Manchester by Wednesday night, I have a place to crash for the night, and then off to pick up my pass and then to Bonnaroo! Look for a full rundown next week. Anyways, I kicked off my festival season two weekends ago at Hookahville, so I figured you'd all love to know how that went down!

The thirty-third semi-annual Hookahville took place over Memorial Day weekend just outside of Columbus, Ohio. Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio, a venue that once hosted The Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, and many other great acts. Nowadays, the venue only hosts a couple of large events a year, but, since 1999, Hookahville has made Legend Valley home. It's an event that has come to help define the band, and the band took some chances to make Hookahville 33 a memorable one.

By far the biggest change in this year's Hookahville was the expansion to three days. By making that change, the band was able to bring in Gov't Mule to headline with two full sets on Saturday night while still playing two full sets themselves on Friday and Sunday. That wasn't all, however. There were plenty of well-known bands on the bill. Right behind Gov't Mule were Michael Franti & Spearhead. Franti has gained a pretty big mainstream following with their hit single "Say Hey (I Love You)," and they're preparing for a new release this summer. Donna the Buffalo, Zach Deputy, and Freekbass all play big festivals throughout the year. Larry Keel and Natural Bridge are a bluegrass band that includes Larry and Jenny Keel, who are better known for the albums that they've done with Keller Williams. The lineup was rounded out with a variety of more local bands and friends of ekoostik hookah, such as Carlos Jones and the PLUS Band, Oakhurst, Rumpke Mountain Boys, Bum Wealthy, and many others.

Unfortunately I missed the early bird on Thursday, so I didn't get to catch Freekbass, although I heard that Thursday night was a lot of fun. My wife and I arrived at Legend Valley on Friday afternoon. After a little confusion about where we were supposed to go (I have to give a big thanks to Dave Katz of hookah for helping us out there), we got into the venue just in time to catch Larry Keel and Natural Bridge. Their nearly two-hour set was a mix of bluegrass instrumentals and musical storytelling from Larry Keel. While I'm not a bluegrass aficionado, their talent is pretty easy to see. They were most impressive during their longer jams, and they mixed elements of jazz and even funk into their bluegrass. It was a good way to start the weekend.

Ekoostik hookah got on stage just after 8:00, and proceeded to play a two-set show that went for over four hours. They opened with "Schwa," one of their defining songs, and didn't slow down until their set break. They went into a funky version of "Roller Coaster" before slowing it down with the bluesy "In the Clouds." Dave Katz was definitely leading the charge early on, and, even though the early songs went into a variety of different styles, Dave held everything together very well.

The bouncy "Walking Down the Road" followed, another upbeat song that included some fun guitar work and a nice keyboard solo. "Another Good Man Gone," slowed things down again, but it's always been one of my favorite hookah songs, so I was OK with that. Steve really stood out with his solo on this one. It wasn't a flashy solo, but it drew you into the song, which is a quality that I've always liked about ekoostik hookah. They're not always going to try and tear the roof off (although they can do that). Instead, they'd much rather paint a picture, and this song is a great example of that both lyrically and musically.

"Hot Desert Sun" continued to highlight hookah's unique nature, blending many of their diverse influences and contemporaries (I picked out elements of The Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, and even Yonder Mountain String Band), all with Katz's recognizable vocals. It was another example of one of hookah's strongest suits, their songwriting ability. Their music blends a variety of influences, but their songs don't get weighed down under the force of those influences. Instead they write songs that grab the listener with catchy hooks and impressive storytelling, a feat that isn't easy to accomplish.

One Hookahville highlight came just a couple songs later, when former bassist Cliff Starbuck joined the band on stage. He did a pair of songs, starting with "Birds (8 Different Ones) and then leading into "Isis." I wasn't familiar with "Isis," but I was surprised with the heaviness of the song. It was a real guitar-driven rocker, and, although there weren't many changes in the song, the power of the song and another impressive Sweney guitar solo.

Starbuck left the stage as the band went into "Change," a good song that probably didn't need to go 11 minutes. I don't mind long songs, but I don' think there was enough here to justify that length. The straight-bluegrass song "How Mountain Girls Can Love" followed, and the first set closed with the catchy "Abdega Gaga." This was one of the first extended jams of the weekend where the band didn't use the jam simply to enhance the song (and, often, the scenic environment surrounding the festival), but instead really led the audience on an inspired journey. Sweeney continued to own his guitar solos, with this one rocking harder and pushing the band to their highest point of the weekend so far.

The second set was probably the weakest of hookah's four sets of the weekend, but it still had a number of high points. After leaving the first set with some soaring jams, they came back with a more straightforward song in "Breath," and continued that for the first half of the set. I always think that the second set of a show is really the time to delve into some experimental areas, but hookah decided not to lead off the second set that way.

Again, that's not to say that it wasn't a good set. Newcomer Eric Sargent got to show off what he brings to the band on more than one occasion during the second set, and he proved that he fits in nicely with the rest of the band. Cliff came back onto stage to play banjo for "Deal With It," and the rockin' bluegrass and vocal harmonies of that song were a second-set highlight.

The second half of the second set picked up with a number of extended jams, although some were a little hit or miss. Carlos Jones joined the band on percussion starting with "Life is Good" and stayed with the band for the rest of the show. "Life is Good" was the band's first "trippy" jam of the second set, and luckily it wouldn't be their last. They went into "Backwoods Rose," and included a very strong keyboard solo that I hadn't expected. "Raging River" started slow but picked up near the end, while "Voodoo Stew" never picked up speed.

"Walk Real Fast" made up for that with some blistering guitar work layered over some of Katz's keys. Serpentine closed out the first set with some more great work by both Sweney and Katz. They really reminded me of some older Genesis with that one, and the stop/start drum work during the verses was very well done.

The encore started with a good version of the upbeat "Water Bear." The upbeat song went very dark during the solo, another side of hookah that I hadn't seen very often. It was really an example of each member going in their own direction while still holding onto the thread of the song. The dark, slower jam led directly into an amazing cover of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine." The held true to the original while making the song distinctly theirs. Without the benefit of any samples, they were still able to recreate the feel of the original while stripping it down to some of the bare essentials. I'm always wary when a band decides to cover Floyd, but this was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. They segued that directly into the end of "Water Bear." While the transition from "Water Bear" to "Welcome to the Machine" worked well, since the band had already moved into a dark, plodding (in a good way) jam, the transition back seemed forced, since they went from the dark and brooding "Welcome to the Machine" into a much "happier" part of "Water Bear." A minor complaint, but I think that they would've been better served ending the first set with "Welcome to the Machine" as opposed to the closing part of "Water Bear."

For me, the music of Day 2 started with the one-man band, Zach Deputy. Taking a page out of the Keller Williams, Deputy loops guitar riffs, vocals, and basic percussion to create a full sound on stage. He played a solid mix of reggae and funk, which wasn't what I was expecting from a chubby white dude in a beard. He was definitely funkier than Keller, but he didn't have the same songwriting quirkiness that makes Keller so unique. Overall it was a fun set, however, and he did a good job of filling up two hours.

Donna the Buffalo played for a little over an hour and a half, and they reminded me a bit of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It may have just been the female vocals, but they also had a prominent organ that GP&N sometimes includes, and the music definitely had a country influence. I'll freely admit that I was hiding from the sun at Camp Gonzo at this point, so I didn't get to hear the whole set, but it was good background music to relax to.

Gov't Mule played two sets at just under 4 hours, so fans of Mule that came out to Hookahville definitely got their moneys worth. I'll freely admit that I don't know too much of Gov't Mule, so I don't have the knowledge of the band to thoroughly review the show, but I know good musicians when I see them, and Mule definitely is full of good musicians. While I only knew a few of the songs, I was impressed by the diversity of what Gov't Mule did on stage.

I've mainly only thought of Mule as a stripped-down but somewhat heavier Allman Brothers Band. Their first set included a mix of the slow Southern bluesy jams that I (right or wrong) so closely associate with The Allman Brothers, along with some of the bass-heavy rockers that set Gov't Mule apart from bands like Widespread Panic. Gov't Mule initially formed as a power trio in the vein of Cream and The James Gang, and those heavier influences came through loud and clear on Saturday night. The jams were solid and diverse, and Warren Haynes proved unequivocally that he is a modern day guitar master.

One of the biggest moments of the weekend also came during the first set. If there was a moment that hookah fans may have been anticipating more than Cliff Starbuck's return, it was the possibility of Steve Sweeny playing alongside Warren Haynes. They got to see that come to fruition during a great version of "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home." Sweeny and Haynes traded solos for a good 8 minutes, and Sweeny made his fans proud. I was impressed with Sweeny's work throughout the weekend, but he proved to me and to everyone that he could stand toe-to-toe with some of the best guitarists. The only thing that I was disappointed in was that we didn't get to see those two together for more songs.

The band closed a relatively short first set with a strong version of "I'm a Ram" that included a little tease of "Shakedown Street." After a pretty long setbreak, they came back for the second set, opening up with "Broke Down on the Brazos." While the first set was very Warren-heavy, the rest of the band got to stand out for the second set. That started with the thumping bass of Jorgen Carlsson for "Brazos." Haynes then led the band through a lesson on both the Mule catalog as well as throwing in a number of teases and covers for Mule newbies like myself.

The second set highlight came early on. After taking a couple of songs to get warmed up, the band ripped through a run of songs that started with "Fallen Down" from their 2001 album "Life Before Insanity," before going into an amazing version of The Grateful Dead's "The Other One" (including a nice break into "Gimme Shelter"), into an extended drum solo by Matt Abts, and finally "Any Open Window." I truly lost track of the songs during that run and just let the music wash over me. The band closed out their second set with "Going Out West," a great song that reminded me of a modern day ZZ Top and a song that really highlighted just how tight the rhythm section for Mule is.

As I stated before, Gov't Mule has no problem throwing a variety of covers into their set, and they opened their encore with Van Morisson's "Into the Mystic." They kept a more relaxed atmosphere by closing the show with a beautiful version of "Soulshine" with an extended vocal intro. After nearly four hours, Gov't Mule had done their job as a Hookahville headliner and truly got the hookah-centric crowd completely bought in to what they were doing.

I'm not going to lie to you. Sunday was the day I was really looking forward to at Hookahville. I've liked ekoostik hookah for a long time, but Michael Franti & Spearhead was the draw for me at Hookahville. I saw Franti at Rothbury 2008, and I've been a fan ever since. Yell Fire! is a nearly flawless album, in my opinion, and All Rebel Rockers is very strong as well. So for Franti to come play Hookahville, just as he's releasing another single and his popularity appears to be on the rise, was a big big deal.

I caught part of The Ark Band prior to Franti coming on stage. They were a good band, consisting mainly of cover songs. However, for most of the afternoon, fans got to see Franti driving around the campground with a golf cart full of kids. He met fans, played some soccer, and even watched a Hookahville wedding (yes, a real, official wedding.) I know that different artists often take time to meet fans at festivals, but Franti hanging out was above and beyond anything that I had seen before. It just went to show that he's truly connected to his fans, and that he values that relationship.

Anyways, Franti went on stage just after 5, and played nearly two hours of high-energy rock/funk/R&B. He also mixed in a lot of new material (or songs that I just didn't know) with his more well-known songs. He opened with a number of his more funky songs, including "Rude Boys Back in Town." He showed his tendency to add different covers and interpolations to his songs by throwing in parts of "Tainted Love" into "All I Want is You," two songs that go very well together.

He started an acoustic version of "Hello Bonjour" before bringing the full band into the song. I actually noticed that a number of the changes and additions that he made during this set were similar to what he did back in September at the Columbus show I went to. I was a little surprised at that, but the songs are good enough that I didn't mind the similarity. Plus, he played enough new songs to make up for any repeats.

After a couple reggae-ish songs, including "People in the Middle," which included parts of "Red Red Wine," he really began to have some fun with the crowd. First, during the intro to "Everyone Deserves Music" he brought up a couple on stage, where the guy proposed to his girlfriend. A great gesture by Franti to allow these guys to have that moment on stage. He then went into "Everybody Ona Move," where he busted out some "Beat It" complete with a Michael Jackson moonwalk.

A pair of new songs followed, including "Sound of Sunshine," his latest single. From there he came into the crowd for "Yell Fire," and once again brought a couple of fans on stage to play some guitar. While this was going on, Franti snuck off stage and into the crowd, where he sang a pair of songs near the sound tent before heading back to the stage to end the set.

After a very short break, Franti and the band re-emerged on the lawn for another "crowd song," which included an audience member bringing a djembe into the band's circle. Not surprisingly, the band went with it, and the drummer (who I think was playing on a plactic bucket) and the djembe player traded some beats. They headed back to the stage for a great version of "I Got Love For You" before closing out the set with an extended version of "Say Hey (I Love You)." Overall it was a great set, although I was surprised at how many songs I didn't recognize and how non-political Franti was during the show. When I saw him last year he emphasized the political nature of many of his songs, but he didn't do that at Hookahville. He played a high energy show though, and, despite the heat, kept the crowd engaged.

Hookah closed out the second night with a set that went well over four hours and nearly 30 songs, which was an appropriate way to end their own show. With all of those songs, however, there's just too much to review everything. Anyways, on with the show. Dave Katz started the set with an a capella verse of "Loner" before the band jumped in for the second verse. The band interjected "Silver Train" after the second verse before wrapping up "Loner" with an extended outro. Loner was definitely more guitar-heavy than the original, but it worked really well. The transition into "Silver Train" was good, but the transition back into "Loner" seemed a little forced.

"Way of the World" sounded great with more solid guitar/keyboard interplays. "Whiskey Woman was good," and there was some great bass work on "Don't Change Horses." It was also great to see Eric Sargent singing a number of songs, and he made the most of his opportunities. Cliff made his first appearance of the night on "You'll Never Find" and took over the bass duties for a great version of "John Henry," (probably my wife's favorite hookah song of the weekend).

I was surprised that we had to wait until most of the way through the third set of the weekend to hear Hookahville, but it made a great appearance a few songs before the set break. There was a nice intro before a great laid-back version of the song. Sweeney contributed great solos, but "Hookahville" really was a whole-band effort, with each member sounding great. The first set ended with an absolutely killer version of "Thumper" before heading off stage a little after 10.

After a half hour break, the band came out for a more than 2 hour second set. "Ecstacy" started things off, and then the band decided to move into a variety of different crazy jams and different guests throughout the set. I'll freely admit that I lost track of songs during the second set, which is a credit to the band on stage. Despite the recent turnover, the band was very comfortable with one another, and Katz had no problem leading the band through different jams. It was an impressive performance.

The second set ended with probably the best run of the weekend. "Find Out" included an extended jam before heading into "My Own Way" and then back into "Find Out." This run was a great example of hookah's Ohio-based songwriting while including some excellent jams from all members. The second set closed out with 18 minute versions of "Black Mamba" and "Green."

The five-song encore lasted over half an hour. "U.S. Blues" opened it up, and from there the band jumped into a cover of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." They closed out with "Hang 'em High," "There's Never Been Any Reason," and "Limelight." The encore didn't include any extended jams, but I think that they chose to go with more songs and less jams for this one, which wasn't a bad choice.

The motto of Hookahville is "No Hassles or Bad Attitudes," and they did a pretty good job on both accounts. At other festivals I've been to, it's not uncommon to see a handful of people being real assholes, either trying to start fights, enjoying their beer or other "adult" substances too much, or just trying to start trouble. During the three days of Hookahville, I saw absolutely none of that. Everyone was nice, friendly, and helpful. I spent a lot of time at the Gonzo tent, which was really a group of dedicated fans who erected a huge pavilion tent, gave people free shade, and offered free spaghetti every night for dinner. Yep, that's right, free spaghetti. It wasn't gourmet, but it was pretty damn good. That was just one example of the attitude of Hookahville. It's been going on twice a year since '94, so it really has developed into one big family.

The Hookahville Wedding

That's not to say there weren't any hassles. The biggest one I can point to is that, on Saturday, there was no free water available most of the day. My understanding is that they were shipping in most of the water, and the water truck arrived during Gov't Mule's set, but to go most of the day without easily accessible free water is just not good at all. It was in the 80's and sunny. I was very glad that we packed in as much water as we did. Vendors were selling bottled water for $1, which is a great deal, but, in an environment like that, water should be free, period. Also, most people didn't get to camp by their car. The thought of me lugging our stuff for a good half mile or more through bumpy terrain in the sun and heat to get to our camp is not at all pleasant. I understand why Hookahville has to do that, with the restrictions of the venue, but I could see that as a problem. Finally, I really think that three days is probably one too many. I had a great time, and the music was excellent, but, without much to do outside of the music, I think they'd be better of sticking to 2 days. 3 and 4 day festivals typically have plenty of other activities, including games, movies, different workshops, etc… for fans. Hookahville had a handful of vendors, but not nearly as many as larger festivals. The people were great, but there's only so much sitting around and talking to people I don't know that I want to do. I enjoy doing different things at festivals, and Hookahville didn't have those options.

Make no mistake, however, I'd do it again. I had a great time, and ekoostik hookah put on two amazing performances. They've gone through a lot as a band over the past six months, but, watching their Hookahville performance, you wouldn't know that. They were as tight and as together as just about any band. Add Gov't Mule and Franti to the mix, and you have a very memorable festival. It's definitely on my radar for Memorial Day 2011.

Meeting Michael Franti. Highlight of my weekend


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