Sister Hazel: Creating music, lifestyles

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There are bands that make music and bands that transform whole music scenes. Since its inception as a band more than 10 years ago, Sister Hazel has been musicians, promoters, philanthropists and scene makers.

This weekend's "The Rock Slope" music festival is the brainchild of Sister Hazel's lead singer, Ken Block. "The Rock Slope" features the music of Hello Dave, Dexter Freebish, Tonic, Shawn Mullins and Sister Hazel playing a rotating schedule of shows at several venues on the mountain.

"We want to be more than just a band that you buy their records," Sister Hazel lead guitar player Ryan Newell said. "We want to create a lifestyle for our fans with events they can put on their calendar."

The idea for a springtime music festival came from Rockboat, a chartered cruise that lasted four days and four nights, traveling around the Caribbean with 2,500 passengers and bands playing all over the boat. Sister Hazel has organized Rockboat for four years and is ready to expand.

"We had future plans to have a West Coast Rockboat, but this year we decided to do a ski festival in the mountains," Newell said.

In addition to their music festivals, Sister Hazel also started a charity organization called Lyrics for Life that funds cancer treatment for children. Tonight's Sister Hazel show at the top of the gondola at the Steamboat Ski Area is a fund-raiser for Lyrics for Life.

Lyrics was founded by Sister Hazel lead singer Ken Block. Through the band's connections in the music industry, its members ask artists to write their lyrics down -- on napkins, paper plates, surf boards, guitars, notebook paper -- with an autograph.

At an annual acoustic concert, Sister Hazel auctions off the lyric sheets. (Tonight's fund-raising event is sold out.)

"Everyone in the band has had a family member with cancer," Newell said. "Ken lost his brother to cancer."

Starting their own charity and organizing music festivals goes back to how the band started.

"We have been musicians all our lives," Newell said. "It wasn't a question of whether we would play music or not. When we got together as a band, we didn't want to wait for a label."

Instead, they took out a loan, bought a van and a trailer and toured the Southeast, selling CDs out of the back of the trailer.

"We created our own scene," Newell said. "When the record labels started calling, they were impressed that we already had the ball rolling."

Sister Hazel signed with Universal Records.

"They plugged our system into a bigger machine. They fixed the things we couldn't afford to fix on our CD, and we sold over a million copies," Newell said.

The band named themselves after Sister Hazel, a minister in Florida who ran a homeless shelter in the '70s.

"She put people in a better place," Newell said, "and that's what we try to do with our music."

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