Hootie & the Blowfish

New World Music Theatre, August 13

Despite reaching multiplatinum status and packing stadiums across the country, Hootie & the Blowfish are nothing more than a bar band. But that’s their appeal. Their music is uncomplicated, catchy, and familiar. While the charts are increasingly dominated by angst-ridden groups that often strive to challenge social norms, Hootie & the Blowfish represent a return to middle-American rock, the feel-good music pioneered in the 1970s by such bands as Journey and Styx. They play simple songs with trite lyrics and melodies that don’t offend or challenge–they just entertain.

The nearly sold-out crowd that flocked to their recent concert at the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park reflected the suburban milieu. It was like a big frat party, with Hootie as the most popular campus band.

When lead singer Darius Rucker took the stage asking, “How y’all doing?” it was obvious that the group hadn’t strayed far from its roots as a South Carolina college-bar band. The quartet played elementary rhythms and melodies, while Rucker swigged beer between songs. Rucker’s rich, bluesy voice is the band’s selling point, managing to transform mundane songwriting to something much deeper and heartfelt.

The group played all 11 songs from its album, Cracked Rear View, and the audience sang along to every one of them. Their sappy breakthrough hit, “Hold My Hand,” had fans clasping hands and swaying to the music. It’s a good-time pop song, and Hootie & the Blowfish do it well, despite Rucker’s admission that “everybody in the whole entire country and Canada is about tired of this damn song.”

The only people who seem to be tired of Hootie are the critics. Since their one-and-only album was released earlier this year, Hootie & the Blowfish have attracted barbed reviews–band members complained in a recent Rolling Stone interview that it’s because they’re normal–they have no drug problems, suicide attempts, or sex offenses among them. Their assertion may be partly true: if they led more interesting lives, their lyrics might be more interesting. But the main reason the critics don’t like Hootie & the Blowfish is that they play thoughtless music, leaving nothing to analyze. “Hold My Hand” summarizes the old “Why can’t we all just get along” theme; “Hannah Jane” is Rucker lamenting that his best friend got married; and “Only Wanna Be With You” is just about what it says it is. Hootie & the Blowfish aren’t original thinkers.

Hootie’s songs don’t make you uncomfortable, or make you think too hard. It’s the sort of thing that bar bands have always done best. Of course, a lot of bands do this better than Hootie & the Blowfish–Chicago’s own Dave Mathews Band, for one–but none has captured the country the way Hootie has. Rucker’s charismatic voice and the fact that he’s African-American certainly make the group stand out in Tinley Park, and the group’s average-guy image is somewhat refreshing. Before a crowd of about 28,000, guitarist Mark Bryan remarked, “This is a big-ass place,” making it clear that they still see themseves as a bar band that just happens to play stadiums.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.