If you never experienced the late South Heidelberg in person, some scene setting is in order. The old south campus institution was described pretty dang well by Michael Bender in his 1998 Lantern column: “The old wood door swings open and the steps bring you underground, into the earth and underneath civilization. This place is literally a cave. Walls made of rock, floors of cement… the Heidelberg version of a stage is to the immediate left. It is actually lower than where the audience sits, with a wooden railing separating the band from the crowd. Order a domestic beer and then check out the back caves where the pool tables sit and graffiti covers the walls. Pretty much anything goes at the Heidelberg.” This was the unlikely atmosphere that helped cultivate a thriving creative community of musicians and like-minded souls that spawned and supported dozens of bands, none more notable than əkoostik hookah.
The SouthBerg scene is close to my heart because I grew up in it. While still a teen in high school at Upper Arlington in the late ‘80s, I was playing gigs at the SouthBerg in one of my first bands. By 1990, I was a student at OSU and, although I wasn't a social butterfly, I’d bump into and get to know the guys in Local Color, Strangely Enough, The Kind and the other mainstays of the Berg scene at the time. We started hearing some buzz about a new group that had formed.
You can’t talk about the origins of hookah without talking about Local Color. Sadly, bandleader Vern Peltomaa passed away on February 19 at just 56. Vern was a kind and gentle soul and he had a big impact on those who knew him, which was clear from the friends, family and musicians who packed Mirror Lake Amphitheater for his Celebration of Life in July. I always thought of Vern as sort of the John Mayall of Columbus. While Mayall was a blues purist, Vern brought somewhat of a purist Deadhead philosophy to Local Color. Vern had a keen eye for talent and a sense for good souls. As you might expect from a band lasting 30-plus years, many musicians passed through Local Color’s ranks, including founding hookah member Dave Katz and future member Ed McGee.
At the time, Local Color played Monday nights at the Berg ($1 Rolling Rocks!) and Wednesday was John Mullins' songwriters cooperative. It was at the co-op that Dave Katz would meet and begin playing with Mullins. Original drummer Steve Frye came from Strangely Enough. I knew Supplication because bass player Cliff Starbuck and I went to the same high school and I’d seen them play at a party. Their guitarist, Steve Sweney, was a killer player. Steve and Cliff decided to join hookah.
"It was a tough decision," Starbuck remembered in a 2009 Columbus Alive article, "but we decided to take a pay cut and go with the original band, which turned out to probably be a good decision." Wednesdays became hookah night at the Berg. Relatively quickly, hookah started out drawing pretty much everyone. Then something truly remarkable happened less than a year after forming - a friend/fan/stranger (depending on the source) named Harlan Penn offered to finance a studio recording.
Here’s how Mullins described it to Cincy Groove in 2008: “I was doing this Wed night gig at the South Heidelberg as a songwriters co-op. The only rule was that anybody could come down and play but they had to be original songs. Dave was playing Local Color at the time. He started coming down on Wed, at the time he was also playing every Monday night at the Heidelberg. Dave and I would end up doing our originals together. The week he called me telling me he was leaving Local Color, I said to him let's change it up and have just you and me on Wed nights. The first night we did our duo gig Steve Frye was in attendance. He asked us if he could bring down his congas for the next gig. We were struggling with the band name over the next week because we didn't want to call it Mullins and Katz for forever. The first time we played with Steve Frye the next week was the first show we called ourselves ekoostik hookah. Actually the week after that was the first time Steve Sweney and Cliff Starbuck played with us. Then Harlan came into the picture, the guy who funded our first album. Then everything just started rolling after that.”
Doug Edwards was just coming off an eight-year run as head engineer and studio manager at the legendary Musicol Studio and would produce Under Full Sail at John Schwab’s Barking Dog Studios (pre-John Schwab Recording) with the band in early 1992. Although the band was still pretty new and the musicians were all young, they’d all had quite a bit of experience playing by this time. With their origins at the songwriters co-op, the band had two solid songwriters in John Mullins and Dave Katz. They had enough material already to record nine originals split evenly between the two, with the title track the only song they’d ever write together.
I think most would probably agree that Under Full Sail isn’t hookah's best album sonically. Originally released on cassette only, the mix is muddy. Still, I think this is a good place to start. Why? Because of the songs. Now, hookah has taken more than its fair share of criticism over the years from the media, scenesters, and even their fans. Jon Petric practically made a career out of his gleeful attempts to knock these upstarts with the big following down a peg or two. What gets overlooked is the songwriting chops.
Opening with Mullins’ cautionary tale of cocaine abuse, Stuck In The Snow, the first thing that stands out is Mullins’ voice. Something of a cross between Jonathan Edwards and Steven Stills, the layered harmonies are well done. We first hear the unique blend of Mullins’ and Katz’s voices on the title track. “When Dave Katz and John Mullins sing, they evoke the sweet/sour harmony of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the breezy, gentle tones of America,” wrote Bill Eichenberger in the December 14, 1995 Dispatch.
Musically, the rhythm section of Cliff Starbuck and Steve Frye lay down a pretty unique bubbling under rhythm punctuated by Frye’s percussive flourishes and Starbuck’s fretless tone. On Lazy River we get some more nice harmonizing with some additional vocals from Sharon Pryer as well as a tasteful guitar solo from Mr. Sweney. With Mullins’ untimely passing in 2017, A Farewell From Futures Past takes on an eerie prophetic feel and an added poignancy. Utopia is an apt closer. In one of the jammier recordings on this song-oriented album, everything fades out except for Steve “Octofrye’s” drums until they also fade out like a sunset.
This is where it all started for a band still going today, thirty-plus years on. Pretty remarkable. There was quite a bit of cross-pollination going on in those days. We shared hookah’s soundman, Dan Mesnard, and did a Tuesday night stint at the Berg for a time before moving upstairs to the patio at NotAl’s Pub. Sometimes Sweeney would stop in and play an Allman Brothers song with us. In retrospect, those were crazy times and a fun scene to be a small part of. I’m not hookah’s biggest or most knowledgeable fan. I’m just a music nut providing my perspective and some much overdue respect to a Columbus institution - əkoostik hookah. Incidentally, Steve Sweeney has been dealing with some medical issues recently, so please keep him, his family and the entire hookah family in your thoughts and prayers.
A5 Arctic Song
Acoustic Guitar – Dave Katz
B1 One World
B2 Lazy River
Copyright © – ekoostik Hookah
Engineered At – Barking Dog Studios, Columbus OH
Mixed At – Barking Dog Studios, Columbus OH
Additional Vocals – Sharon Pryer (2) (track: A5)
Bass Guitar – Cliff Starbuck
Cover, Artwork – Steve Kincaid
Engineer, Mixed By – Doug Edwards
Lead Guitar – Steve Sweney
Lyrical Assistance – Noah Torch (track: A5)
Percussion – Steve Frye
Remastered By – Robert E. Muccino II
Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar – John Mullins
Vocals, Piano – Dave Katz