Hazelnut Hang - South Carolina 2011
"He was brutally handsome, he was brutally handsome."
Come again? Did I just hear that right?
That came from the mouth of Drew Copeland, guitarist and singer for Sister Hazel, as the opening line to "Life in the Fast Lane" by the Eagles. You see, Sister Hazel likes to mess around with cover songs and nowhere is that more abundantly clear than during the special set the band plays during its annual Hazelnut Hang at the Windjammer beach club on the Isle of Palms in South Carolina.
This year the band, which played regular shows on both Friday and Saturday night during the first week of June, as well as an intimate acoustic performance on Sunday afternoon, dialed up a special set of Eagles standards Saturday evening for their diehard fans. Billed as the "Seagles," the five-piece ripped through such favorites as "Tequila Sunrise," "Hotel California," "Take It Easy," and "The Long Run." Flush with sweet harmonies and steaming guitar solos, it was the perfect match for a group that plays outside the box and isn't afraid to take a few chances when they plug into their amps.
Despite the humorously, mild train wreck that was Copeland's initial flub, it is moments like that when you get a true sense of just how fun-loving the guys really are. While some may have forgotten all about Copeland's misstep once he climbed on the bar and played the part of a rock star later in the song, the whole event still plays out on Youtube for anyone who is interested.
The trip to IOP is an abbreviated summer camp for the band; Copeland, lead singer Ken Block, guitarist Ryan Newell, bassist Jett Beres and drummer Mark Trojanowski -- filled will juvenile fart jokes and goofy double entendres that make you laugh aloud even though they are so, so silly. But that's what the fans expect and even being mocked by a band member is almost a badge of courage at this point. How else would you explain a fan base that knows as much about a band's personal life and the insights into songs as they do about the guys who set up the equipment, drive the tour bus and sell the T-shirts and CDs? And for the record, we're talking about Tony the Merch Guy, just as it says on his very own T-shirt that is in hot demand.
But the weekend is so much more than just a bunch of guys on stage belting out one song after another, it is a chance for the fans to get up close and personal with professional musicians who, not only provide the soundtrack for so many people's lives, they also demonstrate that they fully understand that being approachable and sincere carries quite a bit of weight. Handing out sno-cones to the fans at sign-in to conquer the heat certainly doesn't hurt either.
On a much more serious note, the group also took time out from a Q&A session on Sunday morning to take a call from their friend, "Tattoo" Dave, who recently began a fight against cancer. Block, who lost his brother to cancer several years ago and has helped lead the attack against the disease through Lyrics for Life, located the Windjammer's Jam-Cam near the bar and sent out a personal message to Dave and then had the fans sign a book of encouragement. I doubt you'd get a response like that from a band that spends all its time on the road in heartless arenas.
The annual event, much like the group's infamous Rock Boat (www.therockboat.com) is an unusual dichotomy in that the fans can get their photos, T-shirts and assorted treasures signed as the guys seemingly have Sharpies permanently affixed to their hands and at the ready, but there's also times during the weekend when there's a comfort and easiness in just being around the band and playing a wildly intense game of Name That Tune. The wackiness this year seemed to have stemmed from Block turning blank stares into sophomoric references to SNL skits and phallic interpretations on his chalk board. I don't think his team earned any bonus points for his artistry or telling the judge that she was "hot," but it was still worth a shot.
The daily performances were open to the paying public, except for the Eagles cover set and an acoustic teaming of Copeland and Block on the back deck of the Windjammer on Saturday afternoon following a fiercely competitive sand castle contest in which a buried "Mer-man" placed second behind a guitar-wielding porpoise, but the weekend still revolved around the "Nuts" who invested quite a bit of money to spend at least a few days in SH nirvana.
Hazelnuts are not unlike any other fan base in that they all look out for each other and are quick to issue band updates/photos/videos on many social media platforms. Although, you'd be hard-pressed to find another group's followers who are willing to sign up to live for three days in a condo on the beach with three other people that they barely know, a la "The Real World," but that's exactly what goes on for the Hang.
At least for this particular weekend, the other perk for the "Nuts" is that they were given first crack at tickets for the band's June 22 performance at Sullivan Hall in New York City, formerly known as the Lion's Den. Turns out, the Lion's Den was the first place the band played in NYC so many years ago and they were planning a special performance back in the old digs just a few weeks later. Needless to say, I'm pretty sure the limited VIP tickets for that show were sold out before they ever had a chance to reach the general public.
When it comes to the music and the individual shows each day, the band understands that it has to play a certain core of tracks that all of the fans are there to hear, but that doesn't mean they can't be creative and keep them fresh from one night to the next.
Take for example "Champagne High," one of the most requested SH songs out there. The group has taken it from being a full-on rocker (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RE2dlgFwo8) to a sugary-sweet and earnest plaintive (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyjjomYOo4c). So no matter how many times Block and the boys play it, the song never gets old which is good for us and good for them.
Now, when it comes to a song like, "All For You," the one that put Sister Hazel on the map almost 15 years ago, that one hasn't been tinkered with for the most part and continues to anchor nearly every setlist. However, during the Sunday acoustic show, with time running down, Block threw out some suggestions as to what the band could play and that's the song that got the weakest response because diehard fans wanted the group to dig a little deeper and reach for something extra, stray from the norm as it were. As always, the band responded in kind and played a third version of "Champagne High," this time with backing vocals from the start and added guitar texture from Newell, Copeland and Beres.
High-fives, hand shakes and hugs all around at the end of the Sunday set before the band members jetted off to varying points across the States, but even though their destinations may have all been different, you can be sure they'll be right back here in IOP for more sand castles, soundchecks and shows this time next year.