If you enjoyed Hootie & The Blowfish in their radio ubiquity heyday of the mid-‘90s, age probably hasn’t changed your feelings about the band.
But maybe you’re a little wary about how today’s Hootie has ripened (and perhaps you also missed their performance last summer opening for Jason Aldean at SunTrust Park).
If you loved their perfectly pleasant bar tunes back then, you’ll appreciate that this is a well-produced nostalgic romp featuring a setlist stacked with singalongs, an effective stage show (sharp lighting, major video screen action) and a band that sounds record perfect.
The core of Hootie & The Blowfish – singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, drummer Jim Sonefeld and keyboardist Dean Felber - never broke up, and even in the midst of Rucker’s successful career in country music continued to play annual charity events.
What this return to the road will demonstrate for those who have been out of the Hootie orbit is that the hits still hold up, as about 20,000 people at a sold-out Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood on Saturday night – the third date of a lengthy summer tour - confirmed.
The band opened its set, appropriately, with “Hannah Jane,” the first track on 1994’s debut, “Cracked Rear View,” an album that exploded to massive sales of more than 21 million copies (file that nugget under back-in-the-old-days-when-people-bought-CDs).
They led the crowd through the bouncing “I Go Blind” and the soul-flecked chorus of “Hold My Hand,” their inaugural radio hit. Bryan, barefoot in a Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt, shook his sweaty mop of curls as he bounced around the stage, while Rucker, the steady and affable emcee, strapped on a guitar for “I Will Wait.”
The man with the voice like melted butter told a story about playing the Georgia Theatre in Athens and debuting a song that didn’t have a name. Afterward, an audience member commented about the lyrics, “if she wants to cry, then let her cry” – and what would become a worldwide hit was christened.
Rucker’s voice was in prime form – brawny, with a hint of distinctive grit – and was particularly effective during the quietude of a cover of Tom Waits’ “I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You.”
The Hootie sound was augmented by guitarist/keyboardist Peter Holsapple (who worked for years with R.E.M. and was a key component in Hootie’s Saturday night cover of “Losing My Religion”), percussionist Gary Greene and guitarist/banjo/fiddle player Garry Murray. The band also shared its encore with surprise guest Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin.
Rucker’s detour into country wasn’t unheeded, either. The band generously made room for his 2009 smash, “Alright,” with its simple message of achieving happiness, and his 2013 hit version of “Wagon Wheel” (which Rucker said he was performing after a humorous threat from Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley).
The electric guitar-driven “Drowning” spotlighted Hootie’s rock chops, while “Time” seemed to take on a melancholy resonance 25 years after its debut.
There were many smiles shared among band members throughout the night, and why not? They’re years removed from a burnout of a schedule and inescapable fame and selling out venues across the country.
Hootie & The Blowfish has found its happy place.
Sharing the tour is the band’s friends from “north of the border,” as Bryan described them – Barenaked Ladies.
Armed with their own streak of ‘90s hits, the foursome of Ed Robertson (vocals, guitar), Jim Creeggan (bass), Kevin Hearn (keyboards) and Tyler Stewart (drums) entertained the late-flowing-in crowd (traffic, go figure) with well-worn favorites “Brian Wilson” and “Pinch Me.”
But this is a band that has continued to make music, including 2013’s “Odds Are” (a bigger hit in Canada than the U.S.) and their most recent, 2017’s perky “Lookin’ Up,” which should be required on the playlist of every backyard summer party.
Frontman Robertson hasn’t lost a modicum of his sense of humor, telling the audience at the start of their hourlong set, “We know that some of you are only here because you’re value conscious” – meaning, if you paid for two acts, you’re going to watch two acts.
Later in the performance he joked, “If you’re just joining us…we’re Steppenwolf.”
Along with offering the full version of their zippy theme to “The Big Bang Theory” and faithful renditions of “One Week” and “If I Had $1000000,” the band slammed through surprisingly taut covers of “A Star is Born”’s Oscar-winning “Shallow” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” with Robertson and Stewart switching places on vocals and drums.
If you came looking for a night of reminiscing, both bands fulfilled that agenda.
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