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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Sister Hazel

Before the Amplifiers- Live Acoustic

Review by Gary Hill

You’ve really got to love Sister Hazel. For one thing they produce music that’s both catchy and substantial. That says a lot in and of itself. For another they are talented.  I suppose you could wrap those two together. The thing I’m really wanting to praise here, though, is their desire to stay in touch with and please their fans. In response to fan requests the band created this live acoustic set with non-electrified versions of a good number of their tunes. I know there was a time when acoustic sets were all the rage – and a lot of those were pretty weak and almost silly. Well, this one is legitimate because the fans asked for it and the band delivered. It should also be mentioned that Sister Hazel have done a great job of reworking and rethinking their music so that it translates well to the acoustic performance. These guys are professionals and it shows. This is a great disc that will please fans of the band but would also be a great introduction for those of you who have been living under a rock for the last ten plus years.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Champagne High
In an acoustic motif, this takes on a folk rock sort of texture. The opening verse is more dramatic this way. The vocal performance really takes center stage on a lot of this CD and this track is no exception. You just can’t argue with a strong musical composition and many times a stripped down performance like this really showcases a lot of the nuances of the piece. It certainly does here. I especially like the slowed down section and the acoustic instrumental jam that follows it.
Hold On
The transformation here is not as extreme as it was on the opening tune. This one definitely maintains more of its rock roots. The catchy chorus, though, is all the more effective with this acoustic rendition.

Shame
“Shame” comes across as even more of a rocker than the last piece, even with this acoustic telling. It’s a great tune in any arrangement and in some ways this doesn’t feel all that different from the group’s original recording of it. The one major alteration, though, is the instrumental section. This non-electrified foray really cooks! The whole song shines, though. That’s just the icing on the cake.
All For You
The instrumental introduction here is killer! When they move it out into the song proper it’s great, too. This has always been one of my favorite Sister Hazel songs, but for some reason in this arrangement I’m reminded a bit of the balladic side of Extreme. I don’t know why, but that concept keeps hitting me.  Once again the guitar solo section really works well like this. They drop it back to just percussion later in the track and the audience handles the vocals on a round of the chorus.
Your Winter
This track has a lot of that folk texture that we last heard in “Champagne High.” Ken Block’s vocals are especially powerful on this one. The track also gets a bit of country flavor at times. Every song on this CD is great, but in some ways this is one of my favorites. I swear I almost hear a little Lynyrd Skynyrd (Sister Hazel are from Florida, too) in the instrumental section here.

World Inside My Head
In a nice change of pace, this comes in as a piano and vocal ballad. Eventually other instrumentation joins, but Block’s vocals really steal the show here. The man just plain belts it out – but in an emotional way that touches your soul. The instrumental segments also shine (there are two – one driven by piano and one by guitar).  This gets reworked in quite powerful ways as they continue onward.
Strange Cut of Tea
They give this a more rock treatment. It’s a high energy cut that even stripped down is guaranteed to get people on their feet. The powerhouse instrumental segment here is awesome. This is another that for some reason makes me think of Skynyrd just a bit. The closing jam is a smoker and the vocal harmonies on this track are magic.
Mandolin Moon
Here we get a more rock oriented journey as well. This is bouncy and fun, but yet has a lot of meat on its bones, too.  This one is another where the vocal harmonies and overall vocal arrangement really shines.
Just Remember
Block explains his motivation for writing this track before they launch into it. You really have to hear it yourself, but let’s say it shows that Sister Hazel create songs that truly examine the unexamined life. This one is another where Block’s vocals really steal the show, but the powered up version of the arrangement later is great, too.
Come Around
Never forget, in the right hands an acoustic guitar can rock out, too. Sister Hazel proves this again with another hit. They just keep them coming. I’d have to say that the crowd get a bit over the top on this one and take a way just a tad from my enjoyment of the piece. Don’t get me wrong crowd ambience is a cool thing – it’s just with acoustic music it’s a very delicate balance.
Swan Dive
Once more the vocals really steal the show here. The audience sings along at times. This is quick paced tune that’s quite cool.
Happy
Despite its title this track is not a happy one. OK, so I had a bit of a hint on that. When I interviewed them Ken Block said that the acoustic arrangement really reflects the lyrics and the fact that it isn’t a happy song. This is a slow acoustic ballad in this arrangement.
This Kind of Love
Piano leads this one off. It’s a piano and vocal ballad here. It moves slowly and they gradually build it up with other instrumentation.

Starfish
Welcome to the hoedown. This definitely shows that Sister Hazel isn’t afraid of turning to country music. It’s fun and a nice change of pace.  You just feel like shouting “Yee Haw!” They drop the speed down for a later segment.
Change Your Mind
Block explains that this song is about changing perspectives. It’s a great tune. I’ve always liked this song a lot. In this stripped down approach I’m reminded quite a bit of Barenaked Ladies. The section where the audience claps along even feels a bit funky. The guitar solo that closes this is quite tasty.

Feel It
The line “I walked away at times I should have stayed” seems like it would resonate with just about anyone and everyone out there. That’s the kind of universal appeal Sister Hazel has. These guys are really the band of the people. This is another great bouncy number that translates exceptionally well to the acoustic arrangement. They include a cool little shuffle in the middle of it. This is a great way to end things.
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