Photo by Traci Ellis

When Ohio’s ekoostik hookah initiated their biannual Hookahville Festivals in 1994, Bill Clinton was settling into his first term as President. Kurt Cobain had just left this world and Jerry Garcia had just gotten married. Since then, every Ohio summer has been bookended by the band’s Spring and Fall festivals.

Dave Katz (keys), Steve Sweney (lead guitar) and Eric Lanese (drums) have been along for the entire Hookahville ride, playing all 40 of the events, jamming with the likes of Willie Nelson, Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Weir, David Crosby, The Wailers, and so many more. Eric Sargent (guitar) and Phil Risko (bass) have been on board since their first Hookahville as members in Spring 2010.

The Ville, as it is now called, landed in Clay’s Park near Canton, Ohio, this past Labor Day weekend for its second romp at the venue. This was to be a lineup ee cummings would love, with moe. joining ekoostik hookah to headline the lengthy bill. The resort proved idyllic for a music festival, with a natural bowl for the main stage, skirted by a nice tree line providing cover for shaded camping. A waterpark affords attendees complimentary canoeing, ziplining, and varied water games and rides to entertain family members of all ages—complete with a full service and reasonably priced Tiki Bar.

Friday’s “early bird” attendees were treated to a fine night of Ohio Valley jamming, with Fletcher’s Grove and The Wood Brothers both delivering strong sets. Closing Friday at the main stage were The Rumpke Mountain Boys, who absolutely raged all weekend. Playing every night of the event, their Friday main stage set was a genuine, energized thrill ride through wooden music. Those who managed to arrive, set up camp, and hit the stage Friday night were treated to some fine craftsmanship.

Following some blustery early morning thunderstorms Saturday, Dead Ahead Ohio started things off with a set of Grateful Dead covers at the main stage as campers were assessing their homesteads and scarfing noontime breakfasts.

Jones for Revival, a Youngstown, Ohio act formed in 2004 and forged at the fests of Nelsons Ledges, opened their set serenading a lengthy exploration of “Golden Sun” (the first cut on their album YOUniverse) as the August sun appropriately peaked in its glory. Its groove wafted through the vale on a light breeze and spread as far as the P.A. would carry it. Their set included a new composition, “Let’s Get Together,” and ended with stellar work on UB313. Interplay between keyboardist Jay Stephens and guitarist James DeCapua evoked early Duane Allman/Dickey Betts harmonic leads, but with the keys playing the role of holding the lower register. Bassist Andre Ptitchkin debuted his new Warwick semi-hollow body, and along with rhythm counterpart Gino West on drums, the pair created a big, cozy pocket from which the band could explore. PJ Rosenburg rounded out the sound with additional vocals, percussion, and synth work. Brilliant jamming and inspired songcraft proved this is a band to catch.

As evening set in, The Steepwater Band, from Chicago, took the main stage. From moment one, they were winning fans as they lit into “Remember the Taker.” It became clear that this is a group that does not care what year it is or what is on the airwaves; they are not trying to reinvent the wheel nor push any envelopes. The Steepwater Band is rooted in blues, tapped into the river of rock, and riding it hard and free. The aptly named “Fire Away” followed their opener, and the set rolled on demonstrating skill in hooking through a theme leveraged in metaphor that digs at your soul while driving solos and grooves that dare you to stand still at your own peril. Other stalwart compositions included “Grace & Melody,” “Off the Rails,” “Meet Me in the Aftermath,” and a tasty interpretation of John Lee Hooker’s iconic “Boom Boom.” It’s damn good to see rock rise up and spit fire the way Steepwater blasted The Ville. By the time they finished with Clapton’s “Bottle of Red Wine,” they had done their work, and done it superbly. See them.

ekoostik hookah followed with their first set of the festival. The crowd, fully primed and at long last gathered, converged and wasted no time finding its symbiosis with the band as they lit into “Schwa.” Some challenges with the pedal on Dave Katz’s Yamaha keyboard necessitated some ad hoc equipment changes, yet the band didn’t miss a beat. The second tune, “Everything Woman,” is a newer Katz composition as good as anything he has written, and evokes a barrelhouse feel reminiscent of The Faces. Still early in the night, this one extended well beyond ten minutes and had the full endorsement of the audience. Eric Sargent followed with a bluesy “Testify.” Despite the challenges with keyboard equipment, the sound was pristine, the jamming hard-hitting and inventive. “Abdega Gaga” energized the audience further as the band craftily wove its way into the their good favor as only they can—the relationship between the band and a hookahville audience truly is a unique phenomenon to witness.

A slow-rolling and tightly played “35” was widely appreciated, which opened into the festival’s signature tune “Hookahville.” During the solos in the ensuing “Chicago,” Steve Sweney raised the stakes. After finding a position of power in verse, the jam dropped to nothingness before roaring back into overdriven arpeggios and chorused minor chords, all backed by a primal drumming groove and tasteful rhythm work from the rest of the band. The ensemble coalesced into musical majesty. .

Other first night highlights included “It’s Too Late,” an eighteen minute “Black Mamba,” “Ohio Grown,” the funky “Start It All Over,” and an extended “Green.” “Sister Sugar” was remarkable in the exquisite meltdown in its jam, a deconstruction that would have made Garcia giggle. By now, it was self-evident that this iteration of the band had turned a developmental corner, embraced its chemistry, and was imposing its will upon an eager crowd. They encored with a frolic through the Quincy Jones song “Streetbeater,” known as the theme to Sanford and Son.

The energy in the night was undeniable, and the nocturne belonged to Rumpke Mountain Boys as they owned the woods stage until sunrise. Undeterred, the jamming continued offstage, the debauchery waned, and the last of the bacchanalian revelers peeled off to find what rest the rising sun would allow as the day imposed itself.

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