It made complete sense that — on a night following a day during which his hometown of Charleston, S.C. was hammered by a hurricane — Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker would want to say a little something about the situation.
“Back in the day, you’d get one (hurricane) every five or six years, but now we’ve had like four in the last five years hit the Carolinas,” he told the crowd at PNC Music Pavilion on Thursday night, before acknowledging that things could have been a lot worse. “The Bahamas got decimated. It got destroyed. And we’re gonna play this song for all the people who lost their lives, all the people who lost everything, all the great people who live down there.”
Then he and his band settled into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” And though the rap on Hootie (now winding down the “Group Therapy Tour,” its first formal road trip together in more than a decade) is that all of its ’90s-era music sounds the same, there was no denying that this was different: Rucker, proving his voice works as well with gospel as it does with rock and country, used his arresting baritone to put a big snug hug around the uplifting Christian hymn.
But ultimately, the fans came for Hootie’s hits — particularly the ones off of its legendary, 21-times-platinum album “Cracked Rear View,” which was released 25 years ago this past July and according to band members was the excuse for this reunion tour.
And for those keeping score at home, they went 9-for-11 on “Cracked Rear View” tracks, hitting on “Hannah Jane” (the opener), “Not Even the Trees,” “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry,” Running From an Angel,” “Time,” “Goodbye,” “Drowning” and “Only Wanna Be With You” (the closer, although it was used to make a sandwich around a cover of Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It”).
“Drowning,” incidentally, was a bit of a surprise departure. The song was jettisoned from a more-permanent spot in the setlist in July, but was added back specifically for the Charlotte show by special request.
To explain: After opening the encore with an aching, near-a-cappella version of “Goodbye” featuring founding Hootie member Jim Sonefeld’s piano as the only bit of accompaniment, Rucker paused to recount to the crowd a recent conversation with his son. The boy pointed out that the Jonas Brothers drew several big celebrities to their Madison Square Garden show earlier this summer, Rucker said, then asked his dad if anyone famous came to Hootie’s show at MSG.
“Regular people come to see us,” he said he told his son. But, prior to coming to Charlotte, Rucker learned Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be in attendance, and the NASCAR legend said he couldn’t wait to hear the band play “Drowning” at the show. “We don’t play ‘Drowning’ anymore,” Rucker told the crowd, “but we have royalty in the house. So we’re gonna play ‘Drowning.’” (For the first half of the song, I saw a lot of necks turning to rubber as they craned to try to spot Earnhardt. I don’t know of anyone who had any luck.)
That wasn’t the only request Hootie did on-demand. Also not originally on the setlist, Rucker claimed, was “Wagon Wheel” — a song he turned into a No. 1 country hit a few years back (it was originally co-written by Bob Dylan in the early ’70s and first recorded by Old Crow Medicine Show). He said Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, a close friend, couldn’t believe he was thinking of leaving it out.
“He said to me ... ‘Darius, if you don’t play this song on that new tour, I’m gonna punch you right in the throat,’” Rucker told the crowd. “Don’t get me wrong — I would kick Charles Kelley’s ass. But I don’t wanna have to. So we’re gonna play the song he wants us to play.”
Rucker is now 53 years old and should, in theory, be a bit past his prime. But his distinctive singing voice is as full and robust as it was half his lifetime ago, and somehow he doesn’t seem physically to have aged much. There’s still a baby face beneath the beard and the ballcap, and he looked fit and trim in a black Parliament “Mothership Connection” tee and blue jeans over cowboy boots.
Plus, over the course of the hour-and-50-minute-long set, Rucker only occasionally seemed to stop smiling.
How could he not? The place was packed. Not too shabby for a bunch of former frat guys from South Carolina who haven’t released a new album in 14 years and who haven’t had a hit in 23.
In fact, it wasn’t just packed — every one of the roughly 20,000 tickets made available for the band’s “Group Therapy Tour” show in Charlotte was sold in the run-up. It took nearly an hour for me to clear the insane gridlock clogging the final mile between I-485 and the venue on Thursday, and we saw concertgoers abandoning their Ubers and Lyfts on the interstate’s off-ramp because they clearly felt it would be faster to get to their seat on foot.
But the rebirth of Hootie & The Blowfish’s coolness is as nonsensical as ... well, let’s put it this way: It’s even more nonsensical than the name Hootie & The Blowfish.
Because it’s not difficult, at all, to unearth Hootie hatred if you know where to look for some.
The band appeared in 2013 on Salon.com’s list of “The 15 most hated bands of the last 30 years”; on Rolling Stone’s list of the “The Ten Worst Bands of the ’90s” (based on a readers’ poll); and in a feature titled “Top 20 worst bands of all time” by LA Weekly, which made arguably the most searing attack: “Though their leader Darius Rucker is black,” the magazine wrote in 2012, “Hootie could not be more vanilla.”
My wife refused to accompany me to Thursday night’s reunion concert at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion, having strictly imposed a “No-Hootie” rule on her car stereo and her portable music player for more than two decades. My editor, upon learning I was covering the show, spent several minutes comparing Hootie to Nickelback (which, by the way, showed up at or near the top of Salon.com’s and Rolling Stone’s rankings).
Yet not only did Rucker & Co. fill the place, they had the crowd going wild almost all night.
For instance, when he belted “Cracked Rear View” hit “Let Her Cry” in front of a giant static video image of a Waffle House restaurant. And when he gave a nod to R.E.M. — “the most important band” during Hootie’s formative years — before launching into a quite-good cover of “Losing My Religion,” proving Rucker can do a much better Michael Stipe impression than anyone probably could have imagined. And when Hootie hooked up with opener Barenaked Ladies to close the main set with a jovial rendition of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
My only quibble with the song choices: While most of the covers fit and were fun, Rucker’s insistence on barking out Chuck D’s portion of old-school Public Enemy hit “Fight the Power” and Mark Bryan’s rapid-fire take on Digital Underground’s “Freaks of the Industry,” right as the show was coming to a climax, felt like a skippable indulgence. If it worked for you, great; I just found it goofy and an odd fit.
(I think artists can get away with that kind of thing more easily if they’re already goofy and odd — like, say, Barenaked Ladies. Irritatingly, I missed most of their set due to the delays on the ride in; but I did catch their set-closing medley of zany covers, including Ed Robertson’s hammy riff on “Shallow” and drummer Tyler Stewart’s jaw-dropping Robert Plant impression on “Whole Lotta Love.”)
A better fit was “Rollin’,” Hootie’s preview track from the new album it is scheduled to drop on Nov. 1, called “Imperfect Circle.” The track is upbeat, pleasant, something that’s liable to get stuck permanently in your head after you listen to it a few times. In other words, it probably would have been a big hit for them back in the day.
Of course, those days are over. Rugby shirts and baggy jeans like the ones the band wore in the old photos that flashed on the screen throughout the night? They aren’t coming back, and neither is Hootie & The Blowfish, at least when it comes to making songs that can influence pop culture and climb the most mainstream Billboard charts.
But I’ll leave you with this, from a great column about hating on Hootie by Esquire’s Dave Holmes, written earlier this year:
“We never really stopped liking Hootie and the Blowfish, we just began to concern ourselves with whether our peers did. We thought that our neighbors thought that Hootie was no longer cool and, afraid of appearing uncool ourselves, we threw them overboard.”
On Thursday in Charlotte, we pulled them back on the boat — and, in the end, we all had a pretty cool night.
Hootie & The Blowfish’s setlist
1. “Hannah Jane”
2. “State Your Peace”
3. “I Go Blind” (54-40 cover)
4. “Fine Line” (Radney Foster cover)
5. “Not Even the Trees”
6. “Hold My Hand”
7. “Losing My Religion” (R.E.M. cover)
8. “I Will Wait”
9. “Let Her Cry”
10. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” (Led Zeppelin cover)
11. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” / “Desert Mountain Showdown”
12. “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You” (Tom Waits cover)
13. “Alright” (Darius Rucker song)
14. “Running From an Angel”
17. “Wagon Wheel” (Old Crow Medicine Show cover)
18. “Old Man & Me (When I Get to Heaven)“ / “Fight the Power” / “Freaks of the Industry”
19. “With a Little Help From My Friends” (The Beatles cover) (with Barenaked Ladies)
20. “Goodbye” (Darius & Jim (on piano) only)
22. “Only Wanna Be With You” / “Get Down On It”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes