"The original intent was just to play outside and have a campout," says drummer Eric Lanese. "And it just kept growing at a fairly organic rate." Last year the festival -- held at Buckeye Lake in Hebron, as it will be this weekend -- attracted over 12,000 people and musical VIPs Ratdog, Jazz Mandolin Project, Calobo, and Jamie Notarthomas.
"It's kind of overwhelming," admits Lanese of the festival's rapid growth rate. "But being there every step of the way, it's not like a shock. I just pinch myself sometimes."
But Lanese agrees that folks aren't necessarily coming from far and wide just to see Hookah. What draws the out-of-state crowds is more likely the festival atmosphere and "musical guests" the band tacks onto the roster. This year will see the return of Ratdog, with former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir; the Dave Grisman Quintet; Arlo Guthrie; and Deep Banana Blackout -- which leaves many out-of-towners wondering where Ekoostik Hookah gets off having Bob Weir open for them.
"It's our festival -- we've always gone on last," Lanese explains. "It's not a disrespect thing. [Bands] get asked to come and play, and they play. We never looked at it as far as who opens for who. There's more to it than "Well, you've got to put the most popular person on last.' We try to put them on in order of what seems to flow the best."
Nor is the selection of bands some kind of you-scratch-my-back deal, hashed out by big-time, cigar-smoking promoters at the farm in Fredericktown. Lanese likens the selection process to a personal wish list, like giving little Johnny the chance to have his favorite band play at his birthday party.
"Most of it's stuff that we've heard growing up. That's pretty much our list," Lanese says, lamenting that his bandmates nixed his dreams of having Peter Frampton appear this year. "There's a lot of music out there. We need to keep it diverse. You'll probably never see a Warrant or Ratt at Hookahville, but we don't want to put anybody out of the question. We have no intention of keeping this all Grateful Dead-oriented."
Which raises the specter of Jerry Garcia, whose death not only deified the frontman of the Grateful Dead, but also led to speculation that upstart long-form bands, such as Phish and Ekoostik Hookah, would now be riding the crest of a hippie revival wave seeking a replacement for Saint Jerry. Indeed, Hookahville's rapid growth, and the staunchly independent band's touring well outside of Ohio, appear to attest to this.
"Him dying definitely caused a chain of events," Lanese admits. "When, all of a sudden, the people that are responsible for that huge of a core audience are taken out of the picture because one guy died, all those people are looking for other stuff to do. Consequently, it just turns into a big web. You didn't have Ratdog touring that much when the Grateful Dead were together; you didn't have Mickey Hart going out with his thing. And people realize that good music is good music, and they can go see more regional acts that are doing something similar."
It just took someone to bring things together and put the word out.