This Saturday marked the fifth year people gathered on the grounds of Hazelden to celebrate sobriety and music. Even though I’ve attended Hazelfest four times, the significance and importance of having a safe space to hear live music felt more special this year. Perhaps it was because I have attended so many shows in 2017 and the rarity of being able to enjoy a concert without having to be overly cognizant of my sober state allowed me to feel free in a new sense. Whatever it was, a good time was had by all 3,000 who attended.
This year’s lineup provided hours of music starting with Alex Rossi, who opened the festival with his blues-meets-funk sound. As a local Minneapolis musician, he talked about being a past resident at Hazelden — which really connected his energy to the crowd. Between the sets, there were opportunities to hear speakers in a tent sharing their stories of sobriety. One speaker was Kevin Bowe, who produced Communist Daughter’s most recent album The Cracks that Built the Wall.
Right after Bowe spoke, Communist Daughter followed up with an amazing one-hour set that included many songs from their new album as well as several from their first LP, telling the story of singer Johnny Solomon’s sobriety and mental health through lyrics and melody. Next, Har Mar Superstar cranked up the dance vibe, painting the stage with his set. Wearing his signature colorful leggings, he also donned a colorful blanket, which eventually he tore off as the performance and the weather heated up.
Finally, as a last-minute substitution for Lizzo cancelling due to personal reasons, Hippo Campus took the stage for the second year in a row. Host David Campbell noted that people in this audience, more so than others, respect when you need to practice self-care, and sent his best out to Lizzo. Hippo Campus, having just performed at Lollapalooza the night before, did not disappoint. With a spirited performance, the young men had the entire lawn on their feet, dancing and celebrating life.
After Communist Daughter’s set, I sat down with Solomon to discuss his journey as an artist who became sober, what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now. I asked him about the transition from being an active addict/alcoholic musician to being a sober musician. Unlike those artists who seem to make the transition easily, Solomon said, “I was wrapped up in my head about how my talent was connected to my use. Eventually, by going out and playing more and more and finally getting some music out there, I started to get comfortable and realize I wouldn’t even be able to work if I was not sober.”
Becoming sober affected Solomon’s songwriting in a positive way, he said. “I couldn’t use something external to make me emotional. A lot of times, I would use drugs to get me to a place where I could feel inspired. When I got sober I would just sit down and play, and I realized all that stuff I was taking was actually hindering me. It was a crutch.” Solomon went on to describe the moment he knew he couldn’t live the way he had been living.
I had a show at First Ave the next day, but that night I realized I couldn’t even write music. I couldn’t play. I couldn’t think. It was like everything was gone. I had a moment where I knew I needed help. It was the first time I wanted something different and as soon as I honestly felt that, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. It was like taking my first step towards something else.
Next morning I called my mom and said I was ready for help.
I went to that show at First Ave and I just couldn’t wait. I called Hazelden from backstage. The show was going on. I had a bottle of vodka in my hand. This other band — they were young, like 18 or 19 — said, “Hey, this is so fun!” and I said, “Shhhh, I’m calling a treatment center.” The next day I checked into Hazelden.
For other musicians who want to get sober, Solomon pledges that “everything is easier sober: working on music, touring. Decisions are made and it feels better.” (He also spoke at length on this subject in a 2012 interview with Andrea Swensson.)
On a personal note, this is why I need others in recovery, to recognize the similarities in our experiences. Hazelfest is a perfect example of community. From the musicians on stage to the audience perched on the hill, from the organizations represented under the tent to those who are currently inpatient at Hazelden, having a common goal of learning a new way to live without drugs or alcohol is what this festival commemorates.
Addiction and alcoholism affect so many. Finding gratitude in the solution is how I live my life today.
Writer Sarah Eldred works in the development department at MPR and shares an equal passion for music, dogs, and running. Photographer Emma Roden is a student at Normandale Community College.
Har Mar Superstar