Hazelden's music festival: Rocking the sober way

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Nicholas David of “The Voice’’ fame will perform at HazelFest.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • Star Tribune,

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One of Minnesota’s favorite rock festivals takes place at a church. Why not one at a rehab center, too?

Unlike the Basilica Block Party, though, you won’t have to worry about long beer lines at Saturday’s HazelFest, a first-of-its-kind festival at Minnesota’s one-of-kind treatment center, Hazelden, in Center City.

Twin Cities musicians GB Leighton, “The Voice’s” Nicholas David and Communist Daughter — all acts with recovery experience — are scheduled to perform outside the internationally renowned substance-abuse center, which has treated such stars as Eric Clapton, Steven Tyler, Rufus Wainwright and Natalie Cole.

The idea seems all the more radical given that — like the Basilica Block Party — it will double as an open house of sorts for Hazelden, a rural outpost that has always retained a high level of privacy. Clapton once likened it to Fort Knox.

However, HazelFest will differ in one key way from the church party.

“If anything, we’d like to use it as a way to prevent people from needing to come here,” said Nick Motu, the Hazelden vice president heading the fest. “We want to show everyone that you can have a good time without drugs and alcohol.”

Instead of beer gardens and DJs for between-bands entertainment, this rock fest promises to be “a clean and sober event” featuring recovery speakers and 12-step meetings for guests, along with food trucks and family attractions. One speaker will be Emmy-winning actress Kristen Johnston of “3rd Rock From the Sun” fame.

Taking aim at a rock cliché

It may seem paradoxical to blend recovery programs with a rock fest, but not to Communist Daughter frontman Johnny Solomon.

His band was on an upward trajectory, earning TV play and national tour slots, but had to take a break two years ago when he entered Hazelden.

“One of the deep, dark, dirty secrets of the music business these days is that there actually are a lot of us who have gone sober,” Solomon said, referring to the fact that booze and drugs are still seen as the ultimate rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. HazelFest “is a good way to chip away at that popular notion,” he said.

Known for sparking a party atmosphere — there’s even a bar named after him (GB Leighton’s Pickle Park in Fridley) — singer/guitarist Brian Leighton said the great number of musicians who have required Hazelden’s services should come as no surprise.

“Most of us start doing this at a young age, when it’s exciting to always have free beer and whatever else thrown at you every night at every show,” he said. “But then you grow up, and you realize you can’t keep living that way.”

Clapton on his knees

There’s quite a VIP list of celebrities who have undergone treatment at Hazelden, but the names only become public if the performers themselves open up about it.

Hazelden reps would not even say whether Saturday’s performers are alums. Solomon and Leighton both confirmed their time there. David (a k a Nick Mrozinski) got sober on his own, but he recognized Hazelden’s reputation when asked to play the fest.

“I said yes because I support what they do, and any avenue where I am able to lend clarity and peace of mind, I’ll gladly share my gifts,” he said.

Leighton said Hazelden caters to musicians in subtle ways — even supplying guitars to play during down time. However, one of the great things about the facility is that it hosts “people from all walks of life,” he said. Clapton, for instance, roomed with a New York firefighter during one of his two stints at the center.

In his 2007 autobiography, Clapton wrote about his submersion into Hazelden’s group therapy sessions: “I was feeling raw and vulnerable, wondering how I could even begin to get in touch with the person I had become.” After making a breakthrough during his second stay, the guitar god said, “I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express my gratitude for my life, and, most of all, for my sobriety.”

Clapton has since founded his own treatment facility, Crossroads, in Antigua, and raises money for it through his annual Crossroads Guitar Festivals. HazelFest is also a fundraiser (for the Hazelden Foundation), and organizers hope it, too, becomes an annual event.

While stressing that the fest is open to everyone, Hazelden’s Motu said, “Anyone who has gone through recovery deserves an event like this, where they can come celebrate living sober. It’s a great excuse for a party.”

 

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

  • HAZELFEST

    With: Nicholas David, Communist Daughter, GB Leighton, actress Kristen Johnston.

    When: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Hazelden, 1 mile east of Center City, Minn., off Hwy. 8.

    Rules: It’s a “clean and sober” event, with no outside food or beverages.

    Tickets: $20 at gate; free for children under 13.

    Info: www.hazelden.org.

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