ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 28, 1996
Hootie & the Blowfish are one of those freaks of nature that show up on the evolutionary ladder of pop music every once in a while, a band that sells huge amounts of its debut recording, yet, by most critical accounts, is totally undeserving of its success.
For every mountain of CDs the South Carolina quartet has moved—including 14 million copies of Cracked Rear View in the U.S. alone—it has generated reams of scathing reviews. From listening to that incredibly popular CD, I could never understand what the enormous attraction was, but I was equally confused by the vitriolic attacks on the band in the press. For one thing, even if its tunes were lightweight radio fodder, the band at least performed them well enough. They were decent musicians, for starters, and—in an industry where the ability to curse in rhyme along to a drum machine makes recording “artists” out of people who can’t even play an instrument—that should count for something.
In order to try to glean some insight into the paradox that is Hootie, I gave in to the Straight music editor’s semidesperate call for someone to review last Friday’s (November 22) show. I had instinctively turned down that assignment when Hootie played here previously, and would gladly have let the band’s fourth Vancouver appearance slide by as well, but nobody else on the paper’s roster of music writers would volunteer for the task. I decided that the concert couldn’t possibly be all that bad, especially since local favourite 54-40 was on the bill.
My faith in the veteran guitar-rock quartet proved justified. In fact, after a couple of fiery numbers by Neil Osborne and company, I was left wondering how a band that good hasn’t managed to stake out at least a portion of the lucrative American market that Hootie has exploited so effectively. That question becomes even more compelling when you consider that Hootie’s rise to fame was bolstered by its covering of 54-40’s “I Go Blind”, an arguably so-so track from the latter’s 1985 debut.
“They can do our songs better than we can,” announced Osborne at one point, and while that claim garnered cheers of approval from the reported 10,000 Hootie fans in attendance, I seriously doubted its validity. But seeing as the members of both bands are good friends, it’s no surprise that such impromptu compliments arise.
The camaraderie between the groups became apparent during “She-La”, when Hootie’s road crew doused the 54-40 members with Silly String in recognition of their last date on the tour. Osborne and coguitarist Phil Comparelli took the brunt of the joke and looked like they were wearing spaghetti wigs by the time the comical assault was over. 54-40’s rhythm section made it through relatively unstrung, though, which went against the general rule that bass players should always end up wearing most of the whipping cream (or shaving lotion) following such onstage shenanigans.
I don’t know why, but they just seem to deserve it more.
The good-time vibe that accompanied 54-40’s celebratory departure continued as Hootie & the Blowfish began reeling out the big hits from Cracked Rear View and the decidedly smaller ones from its follow-up, Fairweather Johnson. By about the third or fourth easygoing selection I had come to the conclusion that this Hootie music is pretty nice stuff, but before long I was adding terms like safe, predictable, and formulaic to my unspoken colour commentary.
Lead singer Darius Rucker (or Mr. Hootie, if you like) has a nice—Cripes, there’s that word again!—baritone voice that my parents wouldn’t mind, but he verges on Michael Bolton territory by burdening most every song with overbaked passion. Why does every lyric the guy utters have to sound like it’s bursting from the pit of his soul?
Maybe it’s that counterfeit sentiment that the critics can’t stand about Hootie & the Blowfish—and maybe that’s what attracts its multitudes of fans, too. Judging by the hysterical reaction of the teenage girls I saw being emotionally transported by each of Rucker’s words, those overdramatizations have far-reaching effect. The rowdy gals would surely have done the Hootie shuffle on my head if they’d realized how amazingly average I thought their heroes were.