Sister Hazel Band hangs hard with fans at the Isle of Palms

Sister Hazel, whose longtime fans are known at HazelNuts, will perform Friday through Sunday at the Windjammer on the Isle of Palms.

Florida-based rock band Sister Hazel values its fan base. Since bursting onto the Southeastern alternative rock scene in the mid-1990s, the melodic, hook-laden quintet from the college town of Gainesville has developed a healthy and mutually supportive relationship with longtime fans known as the "HazelNuts."

This weekend at the Isle of Palms venue the Windjammer, all five members of Sister Hazel - singer/guitarist Ken Block, bassist Jett Beres, drummer Mark Trojanowski, and guitarists Drew Copeland and Ryan Newell - will welcome old friends, hardcore supporters and a few newcomers to the ninth annual HazelNut Hang, a three-day residency at the club which will run from May 30 through June 1.

Since its earliest days on the road, Sister Hazel has considered the Isle of Palms a home away from home, and they particularly enjoy the beach setting and vibes at the Windjammer. Keeping with tradition, this weekend's HazelNut Hang will includes door prizes, competitions, acoustic and plugged-in jam sessions, special guests and VIP packages.

"It's a laid-back hang where we get to do fun activities, games, contests and barbecues all weekend, and with a limited amount of tickets," says Sister Hazel bassist Beres, speaking this week from Nashville where he and the band have been writing and working on new demos for their forthcoming album.

"Just hanging out on the back deck with everyone is a blast. The same HazelNuts get in on it every year. It's been an institution for us and the fans."

Sister Hazel landed on the national stage shortly after forming in Gainesville in 1996. The smash success of the major label debut, 1996's "Somewhere More Familiar," came after the release of the catchy single "All For You."

South Carolina's Hootie and the Blowfish had recently made waves with "Cracked Rear View," their Grammy Award-winning debut containing the hits "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry," and "I Only Want to Be with You."

Sister Hazel's acoustic/electric Southern pop-rock style paired nicely with that of Hootie's and other modern alt-rock bands of the time.

"We've always had a lot of musical influences between the five of us, but we're each very much on the creative front," Beres says. "The '70s California sound is in there, the hometown Skynyrd/Tom Petty influence is there (both acts started out in the Gainesville area), and the college radio stuff from the 1990s that we grew up with is there, too. We've learned over the years how to embrace everyone's differences while protecting a song. We have a strong idea of how a song should take shape and work."

From the acoustic guitar intro through the richly textured arrangement, "All For You" bounced with a easy-going rhythm and a comfortable four-chord pattern with lead singer/guitarist Ken Block's twangy, emotive delivery over the top.

The simple melody in the catchy chorus of "All For You" - "It's hard to say what it is I see in you ... words can't say and I can't do enough to prove/It's all for you" - easily sticks in the listener's head. It's remains a fan favorite these days.

"We've learned to define our own sound without worrying about how we compare to other bands," Beres says. "The more prolific we become, the better we can do that, keeping in mind that a good song is a good song."

"All For You" became the highest chart single of the band's career. Through the late '90s and early 2000s, they continued to record and release solid original material, and they toured heavily every year.

Beres says that he and his bandmates fell in love with the Windjammer and the Isle of Palms even before the success of their major label release.

"Club manager Bobby Ross gave us a chance early on," he remembers. "We'd always wanted to play the Windjammer because it was one of those special places on the Southeast touring circuit that had a great reputation. It was a great stop, and it was right on the beach. A last-minute cancelation by another Gainesville band led to our first gig there, and they seemed to like us. The club became a home for us."

"After we broke through with 'All For You,' we were able to draw more people and play at bigger venues, but always tried to go back to the 'Jammer to do extra shows or just to visit," Beres adds. "Bobby and the staff are like family to us. We started doing these extended three-day weekends around the same time we'd started doing the Rock Boat events. That's when we decided to really design the HazelNut Hang as a cool, intimate, interactive event for the fans."

In 2001, they designed a unique musical cruise/music festival event called "Rock Boat" as a fun and intensely interactive experience for their fans. Over the past 13 years, Sister Hazel has hosted the cruise ship bash with a variety of songwriters and up-and-coming acts as special guests.

"It's remarkable to see and hear how some fans have come together, met, and even started families through the music and these annual events," Beres says of the Rock Boat cruises and HazelNut Hangs. "There's a great camaraderie and community spirit."

This weekend's VIP "HazelNut Case Package," which includes admission to all of the concerts, copies of the band's new concert DVD "20 Stages," and private "hang-out" shows early in the afternoons, already is sold out. Tickets are still available for the individual shows.

"Last year, we did a Friday afternoon Mad-Lib karaoke on the back deck, which was hilarious, and then we had a special sunset meet-and-greet on that Saturday," Beres says. "There are different levels of packaging available again this year."

This weekend's events include full-on "evening with" concerts at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights and a stripped-down, all-ages acoustic performance at noon Sunday.

"I think our music tends to stand up and cross those generation gaps, and I can see that at the HazelNut Hang every year," Beres says. "I've recently heard a fan say, 'Sister Hazel's music is the one thing my daughter and I can agree on.' At our shows now, you'll see couple in their 40s standing next to a group of sorority girls and a group of parents with their kids, so that's pretty cool."

Fans can expect a healthy mix of Sister Hazel classics and new songs at every show this weekend from the deep cuts of "Somewhere More Familiar" to the anthems, ballads, and groovers from the band's latest studio album, 2010's "Heartland Highway." They'll likely share a few new tunes from the forthcoming studio project as well.

"We tour so much that we rarely need to practice," Beres says with a laugh. "Most of the stuff is well worked out on the road. But for something like the HazelNut Hang or the Rock Boat events, we'll plan a full-day of rehearsal to tighten up on any new material or really old material. We've been playing together so long, we've pretty much got it."