Unpretentious and unthreatening, the biggest bar band in the world has become the target of a backlash that's rather shocking in its ferocity, given that these guys are so unassuming. Supposedly no one will admit to liking the band, though just how they managed to sell 13 million copies of their debut album and sell out the Garden under those circumstances remains unexplained.

Unpretentious and unthreatening, the biggest bar band in the world has become the target of a backlash that’s rather shocking in its ferocity, given that these guys are so unassuming. Supposedly no one will admit to liking the band, though just how they managed to sell 13 million copies of their debut album and sell out the Garden under those circumstances remains unexplained.

The current Atlantic album, “Fairweather Johnson,” doesn’t build on the breakthrough “Cracked Rear View” album so much as repeat it, to lesser effect. Inoffensive in the extreme, the worst thing that can be said about Hootie is that they’re bland — and the potential of two hours’ worth of mid-tempo blandness doesn’t exactly set the heart racing.

The saving grace is the soulful, gritty vocals of Darius Rucker, though again he seems to hit the same basic notes and sentiments in song after song, be it the earnest “Tucker’s Town,” chiming “Time” or breezy “Only Wanna Be With You.” Guitarist Mark Bryan’s goofy cheerleading seemed a bit forced.

Nevertheless, this was a well-paced, professionally performed show, whose one truly grand moment came with a passionate reading of “Let Her Cry.” Every ounce of pathos was wrung from it, and the crowd responded with a long ovation. The encore featured a perfunctory “Hold My Hand” and Bryan’s festive vocal turn on the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin.’ ” The choice of that ’70s soft-rock nugget as show-closer says a lot about where Hootie’s heart lies.

So too does it choice of (and obvious affection for) opening act John Hiatt, who joined the group for a rousing “Memphis in the Meantime.” Hiatt’s own set was a typically solid, punchy affair.

The feisty singer acknowledged his success in placing songs with other acts via versions of “Thing Called Love” (which boosted Bonnie Raitt’s career) and a particularly touching “Have a Little Faith in Me” (sung by folkie-of-the-moment Jewel on the “Phenomenon” soundtrack).

Hootie & the Blowfish

Production

Hootie & the Blowfish (Madison Square Garden, New York; 20,000 capacity; $ 35 top) Promoted by Metropolitan Entertainment. Reviewed July 30, 1996. The easy charms of Hootie & the Blowfish effortlessly translate to the arena level. The group may be little more than a Chicago for the '90s, but there's no arguing with gazillion-platinum success.

With

Band: Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Dean Felber, Jim (Soni) Sonefeld, Peter Holsapple.

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