Headliners: Ekoostik Hookah

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Cliff Starbuck spent half his life playing bass for Ekoostik Hookah. Now he's ready to try something different, so the founding member will play his final gig with the band next Thursday, a marathon New Year's Eve show at Newport Music Hall, before moving to Los Angeles.

"I love playing with Hookah," Starbuck said during an interview last week at a Campus-area cafe. "We make a decent living and everything, so it's kind of hard to leave that. But I think it's time to try something new. It's been almost 19 years I've been in this band."

Starbuck started to get restless last year after reconnecting with an old high school girlfriend at her mother's funeral. They renewed their relationship even though she lives in L.A., and he's found it hard to get out to the coast as much as he'd like.

When he has managed to make the trip, the prospects of playing with new collaborators have been enticing, reminding Starbuck of how much fun he had breaking out of the Hookah mold and touring with some friends in Colorado and New Mexico a few years back.

The visits to California left Starbuck wanting to shake things up a bit, so he's letting go of the band that has defined his entire adult life.

It's been a long ride. Starbuck helped found Hookah in 1991, when he and guitarist Steve Sweney were teens touring around Ohio in a cover band called Supplication. They teamed up with Dave Katz, John Mullins and Steve Frye after jamming at the now-defunct South Campus hangout The South Heidelberg. They were making a good living playing covers, so forming an original band was a risky proposition.

"It was a tough decision," Starbuck remembered, "but we decided to take a pay cut and go with the original band, which turned out to probably be a good decision."

Talk about an understatement. Hookah toured relentlessly and became one of the most popular live bands in the Midwest. They traveled the world, released eight albums and founded the immensely successful Hookahville music and camping festival. As a result, being in Ekoostik Hookah is fun and profitable, but it's also a big Columbus-centric commitment for somebody whose heart is halfway across the country.

Starbuck's departure isn't the first lineup shakeup for Hookah. Eric Lanese replaced Frye on drums in 1993, and Mullins left the band in the late '90s only to rejoin in 2006. Now they'll bring in a new bassist (mum's the word) and take six weeks off to break him in.

But first, they'll play Starbuck's swan song at Newport, a lengthy affair that suggests they're going to work their founding bassist hard before they let him off the hook.

Doors open at 7 p.m. next Thursday and the first of four sets will begin at 8, a warm-up segment featuring lots of solo and duo performances. Three full-band sets will follow, stretching all the way to 2 a.m. Then it's off to L.A. for Starbuck - and who knows where else?

"The world is big and beautiful," Starbuck said. "Even though Columbus is as good a place as most, I don't feel like being confined to it forever."

He took a long pause and smiled.

"But I might be back."

Ekoostik Hookah

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 31

Where: Newport Music Hall, Campus