Headed to town for a show this Saturday at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire, I chatted with Sister Hazel frontman Ken Block earlier today about the band's rabid Chicago fanbase, its considerable charitable efforts as well as work on the band's first new studio album since 2010.
Gainesville, Florida's finest, believe it or not, Sister Hazel are quickly approaching their twentieth anniversary. Peddling their unique fusion of folk and southern rock since 1993 (always with a pop sensibility and great harmonies), the band's lineup has remained steady throughout: Ken Block (lead vocals and guitar), Jett Beres (bass and vocals), Andrew Copeland (guitar and vocals), Ryan Newell (guitar and vocals) and Mark Trojanowski (drums).
I asked frontman Ken Block about the origin of the band's name because, while fairly well-known, it's indicative of the roots of perhaps Sister Hazel's most admirable quality as a band: its considerable awareness of and dedication to a number of worthy causes.
"The band name Sister Hazel came from Sister Hazel Williams. She’s eighty-seven years old now. Still lives in Gainesville, Florida. She’s a black, female minister. I remember watching her on TV when I was a little kid going, 'Mom, that lady is helping out people she doesn’t even know?' My Mom would say, 'Yeah' and I’d say, “That’s unbelievable.” And that spirit of unconditional regard for people meant a lot to me." says Block.
Block, who lost his younger brother Jeffrey to cancer, formed the charity Lyrics For Life, which according to its website is a "non-profit organization whose mission is to make a difference in the fight against pediatric cancer."
"I lost my little brother to cancer. He was diagnosed at fourteen, died at eighteen and I was twenty when he died... We’ve been really, all of us, on the same page. When our vehicle can call attention to worthy causes, it’s really gratifying for us and we’ve been able to raise almost a million dollars for not only research for childhood cancer but also for programs that support those siblings and support those families that are going through that."
That concern for people is evident not only in the way the band dedicates their time to a cause but also in the way that it treats its fans night in and night out on tour. Sister Hazel has always amazed me in the way that it remains a very sizable draw, especially in Chicago, despite a consistent lack of major radio or TV exposure. It's not at all uncommon for the band to quickly sell out multi-night stands in Chicago at venues like the House of Blues. The band also remains a summer staple in Chicago on the neighborhood festival circuit. Their dedicated fanbase, known as "Hazelnuts," consistently sell out fan specific events like Sister Hazel's annual "Hazelnut Hang."
"We try to break down that wall between the artist and the concertgoer. That accessibility, that desire to actually feel like a big family, has really served us well." says Block. "We’ve been really lucky that the five of us get along really, really well and we have the kind of personalities where we’re all very honestly appreciative for the fact that people care about what we’re doing."
Returning to the northern suburb of Lincolnshire this Saturday for a rare, single night, small club appearance at Viper Alley, Block clearly has fond memories of his many performances in the Chicagoland area since the early nineties.
"...Chicago kind of adopted us as their own pretty quickly after Someone More Familiar got released. So when we first got up there and people were singing back the words to not only 'All For You' and 'Happy,' but like track seven and eight, it was remarkable to us because as a bunch of college kids back then, we were like 'Man, what is Chicago?' People were singing back the words to our songs to us! So we were blown away by that."
Having appeared on the annual "Rock Boat" cruise earlier this month (an idea the band created in 2001), Sister Hazel performed with Chicagoans the Freddy Jones Band. This weekend, the band will be performing with more Chicago acts as both Marty Casey of The Lovehammers and Matt Hoffer of Holding Mercury open the show Saturday at Viper Alley. "Just like Freddy Jones Band, Chicago has so much talent and such a rich, musical history. Especially, there’s some great songwriters up there. So we’re looking forward to it."
Viper Alley is a unique venue for Sister Hazel in that it's far smaller and more intimate than venues like House of Blues that the band normally performs at in the city. With several table seating options available for Saturday's show (in addition to general admission, standing room), fans really do get the opportunity to get close to the band.
"We play stuff from newer records, stuff from older records and just try to take people on a journey and try to make people laugh, think, and move a little bit. That’s a pretty intimate venue so it gives us an opportunity to have some interesting little banter going back and forth between each other and between us and the crowd." says Block of Viper Alley. "If people get a chance to come out, it’s a unique way to see the band."
"Fan" was a word that was mentioned frequently today by Block during our chat and it was refreshing as Sister Hazel really does seem to care about their "Hazelnuts." "...We appreciate them more than they could ever imagine. They are the fuel that keeps our army marching."
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Lincolnshire, IL 60069
Doors open at 6PM. Show starts at 8PM.
Restaurant opens at 5PM
Opening Acts: Marty Casey (The Lovehammers)
Matt Hoffer (Holding Mercury)
General Admission = $30
Table seating options (as well as meet and greet passes) are also available.
Click HERE for all ticket info.