Review: Hootie & the Blowfish were pretty good after all
There’s a version of the Hootie & the Blowfish story in which you’d fully expect to find the band at the Troubadour in 2019.
A commercial juggernaut in the mid-1990s — when its debut album, “Cracked Rear View,” sold more than 10 million copies — Hootie once played enormous rooms filled with thousands of fans singing along to such catchy roots-rock hits as “Hold My Hand” and “Only Wanna Be With You.”
For the record:
8:39 AM, Nov. 06, 2019An earlier version of this article said that Hootie & the Blowfish performed Oasis’ song “Wonderwall.” The band performed Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova.”
But that was two and a half decades ago. These days, clubs and small theaters are where countless other acts from Hootie’s post-grunge moment — your Gin Blossoms and your Fastballs — still do their thing for aging crowds hardly eager to hear new stuff.
Yet those weren’t the circumstances that brought this group from South Carolina to West Hollywood for a very cozy gig Monday night. Hootie & the Blowfish spent the summer touring arenas and amphitheaters (including the Hollywood Bowl and New York’s Madison Square Garden) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Cracked Rear View.” And Friday, it released “Imperfect Circle,” its first studio album since 2005.
The Troubadour, then, represented what’s known as an underplay — a chance for the band to blow off some steam in front of a few hundred folks while in town to promote the new record on “Ellen” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
“We came out here to work, but this is fun,” guitarist Mark Bryan said at one point in the show, and given that he’d just removed his shoes (and his socks), it was easy to believe him.
So how did a group never embraced by tastemakers — one whose superstardom evaporated almost as quickly as it materialized — manage such an impressive comeback?
Part of it is ’90s nostalgia, of course — the same force that keeps Fastball playing in clubs as opposed to nowhere at all. Part of it is the success that Hootie’s big-voiced frontman, Darius Rucker, found as a high-profile country singer following the band’s initial run.
But there’s also the fact that the group’s music simply feels good right now, its modest but assured blend of various American idioms (from college rock to folk to bar-band R&B) a convincing argument against the factionalism that defines the Trump era. That Rucker is a black man thriving in a historically white cultural space only adds to the sense that Hootie has become a band whose victory is worth cheering.
Off the road, none of this makes “Imperfect Circle,” which happily maintains Hootie’s trademark style, an easy sell at a time when rock (or what’s left of it on the radio) sounds nothing like what Rucker and his mates do.
“If you took the hits off ‘Cracked Rear View’ and put them out today, there’s really no place for them,” the band’s manager recently told Billboard, which is why the new project is being marketed more or less as a country album. It’s an exceptionally solid one at that, with Rucker’s undimmed singing showcased in clever, heartfelt tunes co-written with Chris Stapleton, Ed Sheeran and assorted Nashville pros.
At the Troubadour — where another country-adjacent rock act, the Eagles, famously roosted — Hootie leaned into that identity; the group played a couple of Rucker’s solo hits and gave “Let Her Cry” a yearning fiddle line that gave the smash 1994 ballad a down-home Appalachian vibe.
But the intimate setting seemed to lead the band to flash back to its days as a scrappy local band playing Southern frat houses — even if it was playing here with the muscle it developed only years later (and then re-exercised on the reunion tour). In addition to Hootie’s best-known material and a handful of new tunes, the group did a bunch of covers Monday, including Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What I Can Do” and “Losing My Religion” by its avowed heroes in R.E.M.
A set list taped to the stage in front of the band members ended with “Only Wanna Be With You,” which they mashed up with Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down On It.” (Earlier, Hootie’s “Old Man & Me” had gotten an even more unlikely injection when Rucker dropped in a verse from “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.)
But the group kept going after that planned conclusion, jamming on a funky rendition of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and strumming through Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” with a soulful tweak of the song’s vocal melody from Rucker. During an instrumental break in the latter, the frontman stuck his microphone in the back pocket of his jeans and peered out at the audience with a grin. He was clearly happy to be in a tiny room — and just as happy that he didn’t have to be.
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