The folk troubadour Billy Bragg wrote, a decade or so ago, about the power of the Four Tops to soothe and make everything right in the world when it all appears to be crumbling. Some day, probably a good 15 years from now, a budding songsmith might pen a similar ode to Darius Rucker and his warm, impeccable voice and its friendly earnestness. There’s hope and open arms expressed in every line he sings, sometimes overt and sometimes as subtext, and it is indeed so consistently pleasant that its effectiveness can be easily overlooked.
But where Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops had some of the best in the biz writing songs for them, Hootie & the Blowfish has become a synonym of simple, basic-chord, bar-band folk rock buoyed by direct, romantic lyrics. It won over 15 million record buyers three years ago with “Cracked Rear View” and that debut finds its tonal brethren in “Musical Chairs,” the disc released last week that shares the concerns of “Cracked” with a boatload of catchy melodies and lyrics of plain-spoken sincerity. “Fairweather Johnson,” the band’s second disc for Atlantic, showed that a lyrically bleak Hootie is a tough sell.
After 60 minutes of the band’s one hour, 40-minute show at a packed House of Blues, however, everything started to feel like a retread: the rhythm guitar is the same, the balance of group vocals and how they’re placed in each song is the same, and the lyrical concerns are generally the same. (What’s amazing to watch is the way guitars are changed after every song to get music that doesn’t even sound like it changes keys).
For a band with such an acoustic backbone, surprisingly it was the all-acoustic settings that stood out. Show opener “Desert Mountain Showdown” and the lyrically oblique “Michelle Post,” both from the new disc, show H&B’s ability to distill bluegrass into pop; for once, the band exhibited a sense of place (the South), proving they needn’t be a generic catchall for American guitar-based pop in the ’90s.
The South Carolina band, augmented by the solid multi-instrumentalist Peter Holsapple (the dB’s), their longtime keyboardist Jon Nau and percussionist Gary Greene, performs the whole night with confidence that never appears brash. Their music is about finding a comfort zone for performer and audience alike, and they couldn’t appear to be comfier, playing boldly in a bar with a living room atmosphere onstage. They are never less than note-for-note perfect: This is a balanced and cohesive unit that gets it right time after time as instrumen-talists and vocalists.
Not so surprisingly, Hootie & the Blowfish use a lot of Jimmy Buffett musical tricks — the accented strumming, a slightly slow mid-tempo, group vocals and dropped instrumentation — though they possess none of his lyrical skills. It appeals to a beer-drinking crowd and one that wants those half-dozen hits cranked out the way they know them. And in this regard, H&B deliver the goods in a big way — Rucker’s vocals were at their best on “Time” and “Let Her Cry,” the band fed off the enthusiasm, and the juxtaposition of the familiar and the new energized the songs that needed a boost to be heard over the chattering crowd.
“Musical Chairs” has a lot going for it, particularly the song “Las Vegas Nights,” and the Hootie backlash might well have reached the statute of limitations. Wisely, the band is starting to support the disc with a three-week tour of clubs such as Chi’s House of Blues and small theaters such as San Francisco’s Fillmore and the Roxy in Atlanta. Hootie & the Blowfish seem to willfully accept their limitations — not that they can’t again appeal to millions — and they’re starting by playing to their strengths: small halls and Rucker’s big voice.