MOUNTAIN VIEW — When Hootie and the Blowfish were riding high off mega-hit album Cracked Rear View in 1995, they probably didn’t have as much crossover with country music outside of their home base in South Carolina. But Saturday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, as the Darius-Rucker-led band returned to the Bay Area in support of the 25th anniversary of its landmark debut, a curious thing happened. Other than concert opener “Hannah Jane” and closer “Only Wanna Be With You,” the songs that drew the loudest applause from the packed theater were a Darius Rucker solo country tune—”Alright”—and a cover of bluegrass band Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” And when it came to the band’s other songs, and covers, everything fit neatly into the same box.
In the mid-’90s Hootie and the Blowfish were amazingly successful with the crossover from alt-rock to pop radio formats. The over-saturation eventually contributed to the band’s downfall; people had heard too much from the band. Hootie went on hiatus, a time during which Rucker became a top-selling country act. That may have seemed surprising at the time, but seeing the band reunite and play a mix of Cracked Rear View songs with covers and Rucker’s solo material made it clear that he had it in him from the outset.
Have Hootie and the Blowfish been a country band this whole time? The twangy inflection, pedal steel, fast violin solos and Rucker’s voice suggested that, well, maybe.
Rather than follow the traditional two-set structure of most anniversary tours these days, with one set devoted completely to playing a record front to back, Hootie and the Blowfish mixed in the majority of Cracked Rear View‘s 12 tracks with numerous covers and a handful of songs from the rest of their five albums. After opening with the album’s first cut, “Hannah Jane,” Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, bassist Dean Felber and drummer Jim Sonefield—all looking very much like soccer dads—sprinted ahead to “State Your Peace,” off 2005’s Looking for Lucky, their most recent record. They were backed by three additional musicians who were largely responsible for the country inflections, be it on fiddle, pedal steel or other instrument.
“I Go Blind,” actually a song by Canadian alt-rock band 50-40 in 1986 that Hootie and the Blowfish popularized with a cover in 1996 (for the Friends soundtrack) came next. As the band performed, old gig posters flashed on an LED screen. Fans sang and clapped along to the two overlapping vocal lines on the song. On “Fine Line,” a cover of a Radney Foster tune, Rucker’s country twang rose above the rest of the song’s arrangement.
The frontman’s gravelly wail again held center court on the soulful, organ-led “Not Even the Trees,” which, along with the following “Hold My Hand,” was a highlight. Rucker then walked into the first few rows during a faithful cover of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” And he told a story about the band’s experience playing the Bridge School Benefit concert at Shoreline in 1995. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who were also on the bill, asked Rucker if Hootie and the Blowfish had really written their own songs. After he confirmed that, she told him to always play the band’s hits. Rucker dedicated “Let Her Cry” to Hynde.
The set included numerous other covers, from Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do”—which Rucker said was the only Zeppelin song he could sing—to a twangy version of Tom Waits’ “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and a medley that included Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (!), Digital Underground’s “Freaks of the Industry” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star.” During show closer, the band actually fit Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down On It” into the middle of “Only Wanna Be With You.” The transition was questionable as Hootie and the Blowfish quit their biggest hit cold turkey to make the pivot, only to return for the final verse.
Still, it was the cover of Rucker’s own song, as well as the Old Crow Medicine Show tune, which he had previously released as a solo cover, on which fans made themselves most noticeable. Another cover that fans especially responded to was traditional bluegrass number, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” which Rucker dedicated to “all the people who are dying so we could live in the greatest country in the world.”
The tail end of the concert was highlighted by spirited performances of “Running From an Angel,” “Time” and “Drowning.” During the latter song, the lyrics flashed by behind the band to remind attendees that the uptempo tune carries a heavy message: “Drowning, in a sea of tears/ Hatred, trying to hide your fears/ Living only for yourself/ Hating everybody else ’cause they don’t look like you.”
Canadian alt-rock stalwarts Barenaked Ladies opened the show with dose of their hits and deeper cuts, as well as a good helping of dad jokes. The set included “Odds Are” and “Gonna Walk ” from 2013’s Grinning Streak; “The Old Apartment” from 1996’s Born on a Pirate Ship, and “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson” from 1992’s Gordon.
“We’ve been a band for 30 years, now,” lead vocalist Ed Robertson said in regard to the latter song. “When we released this song, it was on an independent label cassette.”
Robertson also performed a short rap to introduce his band and pulled several situational jokes from his sleeves, convincing many attendees that countrywoman Sarah McLachlan was about to perform prior to the Big Bang Theory theme song and encouraging fans to sing along to another song: “Look to your left and to your right. If they don’t sing the choruses, they’re a racist.”
Of course, the Barenaked Ladies’ set included other hits like “It’s All Been Done,” “Pinch Me” and “One Week,” but the band finished up with a medley of covers that included Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Panic at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” from the A Star is Born soundtrack.