“Sometimes you get lucky and you write a song,” singer Darius Rucker said as Hootie & the Blowfish launched into “Let Her Cry,” probably the best of many mid-1990s hits the band rolled out for a near-capacity crowd at Austin360 Amphitheater on Thursday evening. A jumbotron image of a Waffle House towered behind them as he sang, testifying to the deep Southern roots of this Carolina band.
A hot sunny day turned into a mild moonlit evening at the spacious outdoor venue, providing pretty much perfect weather for a concert that was chiefly a let-the-good-times-roll affair. Touring for the first time in a decade, Hootie & the Blowfish are celebrating the 25-year anniversary of “Cracked Rear View,” the multimillion-selling album that made them a household name.
» READ MORE: Our interview with Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan
Rucker’s since gone on to country stardom under his own name, and a lot of that influence has carried over into this Hootie tour, in terms of both the music and the audience. “Oh yeah, who loves country music?” Rucker shouted out at the end of “Wagon Wheel,” the Old Crow Medicine Show (via Bob Dylan) song that Rucker took to the top of the country charts in 2013. The roar of approval made it clear Hootie’s fan base today has morphed and expanded from its mid-’90s pop-rock origins.
It’s notable that Rucker had such success with “Wagon Wheel.” While the band wrote “Let Her Cry” and other “Cracked Rear View” radio jams such as “Hold My Hand” and Thursday’s encore-closer “Only Wanna Be With You,” they’ve often been at their best when playing other artists’ material. Early in the set, they pretty much acknowledged that with a heartfelt introduction to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”
“If it wasn’t for that band, I can honestly say we would not be the band we are today,” Rucker said, giving a special shoutout to multi-instrumentalist sideman Peter Holsapple, who had a similar role in R.E.M. before teaming up with Hootie in the mid-’90s. (A veteran rocker with albums of his own and with North Carolina band the dB’s, Holsapple treated early-arrivers to a three-song acoustic solo set at the merch booth before opening act Barenaked Ladies took the stage.)
Indeed, several of the night’s highlights involved Hootie’s takes on other songs. A big cheer went up early in the set when they launched into Canadian band 54-40’s “I Go Blind,” a gem Hootie pulled from the 1980s rock underground into the 1990s mainstream when their version landed on soundtrack CD to the iconic “Friends” TV sitcom.
They followed that with “Fine Line,” a song by native Texan Radney Foster, and later rendered Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” as a lovely acoustic number with Rucker and guitarist Mark Bryan sitting on stools front-and-center. Throughout, bassist Dean Felber and drummer Jim Sonefeld provided steady rhythm support, with additional multi-instrumentalists Garry Murray and Gary Greene further fleshing out the band's clean, bright sound.
» A-LIST PHOTOS: Hootie & the Blowfish and Barenaked Ladies at the Austin360 Amphitheater
Less fitting was the band's stab at Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” simply because there’s very little overlap between Zep and Hootie in terms of core musical aesthetic. As good at covers as they can be, Hootie’s strong point isn’t re-interpreting well-known songs in their own style, but rather giving faithful readings to material that arena-show masses would otherwise never hear. That’s why “I Go Blind” works so well, and why it would have been nice to hear their splendid version of 1980s Austin band the Reivers’ “Almost Home.”
Other “Cracked Rear View” hits kept the crowd singing along later in the set, especially the one-two punch of “Time” and “Drowning.” The latter tune’s head-on pushback against racism signaled more to come when they worked a bit of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” into their own “Old Man & Me (When I Get To Heaven).”
A well-chosen set-closer was the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” delivered via Joe Cocker’s classic rearrangement. They invited the four Barenaked Ladies members out to join them for that — a slightly awkward but humorous moment because the lads had been closely following their hometown Toronto Raptors’ NBA Finals game backstage. Hootie guitarist Bryan put them at ease: “While we’re rockin’ right here, the Raptors are going to take their first title.” And that’s exactly what happened.
The Canadian foursome’s opening set was well-received and quite entertaining, especially on hits such as “One Week,” “Brian Wilson” and their theme song for the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.” They tossed up some quality local shoutouts to Arlyn Studios, where they recorded one of their albums, and local production company Rooster Teeth, which did one of the band’s videos. The drummer introducing himself as Charlie Sexton pushed it just a little too far — as was the case with the group’s final 10 minutes, a campy romp through contemporary and classic covers by the likes of Lady Gaga, Lil Nas X, Led Zeppelin and Queen that almost let the air out of the fun their own songs had provided.
» Listen — American-Statesman writer Peter Blackstock talks about Hootie & the Blowfish on Austin360 Radio: