Darius Rucker has won the music-business lottery twice. And there’s a reason for that: He works so hard at making it look easy.
That was the case when he led Hootie & the Blowfish to the top of the pop world in the mid-1990s. That’s the case now that he’s scored three consecutive No. 1 country albums, six No. 1 country hits and a spot in the Grand Ole Opry. And that was the case Friday at the sold-out Mystic Lake Casino showroom.
He worked that room as if he built it with his style and taste. He’s the same easygoing guy he was with Hootie — jeans, ball cap, well-worn T-shirt, a little boot scootin,’ a lot of subtle, sexy hip-swaying, and that distinctive honeyed baritone. His face was as emotive as his voice — the gleam in his eyes, those long dimples and that infectious smile.
His easy, breezy and soulful vibe works as effectively with today’s country crowd as it did with the pop masses in Hootie’s “Cracked Rear View” heyday. Rucker’s simply added a few more y’alls. But that’s natural — he’s from South Carolina. His country songs could probably pass for pop if Hootie wasn’t so passé. And, conversely, his Hootie hits could play as country today, especially since he’s added fiddle and pedal steel guitar seasoning.
In fact, on Friday, he introduced the Hootie smash “Let Her Cry” as the first country song he ever wrote (it featured a terrific arrangement going from soft to loud passages, with country-gospel organ and, of course, fiddle and steel guitar).
Truth be told, Rucker’s repertoire at Mystic made it clear that he’s an open-minded eclectic. He went from a snippet of the Commodores’ dance-floor classic “Brickhouse” to Hank Williams Jr.’s country standard “Family Tradition,” easily the rowdiest number in the 85-minute set. Unless, of course, you consider Steve Miller’s “The Joker” with its midnight toker shaking that gal’s peach tree to be about getting wild.
If this is starting to sound like Rucker, 47, was fronting a bar band, that might be half correct. He and his six sidemen, dubbed the Carolina Grey Boys, performed with the sweaty joy of young bar stars but on one of the fancier stage set-ups seen at Mystic Lake — with three big video screens behind the band and video screens on the front of the various band risers. That was quite some high-tech eye candy, especially compared to Rucker’s faded tee with Mickey Mouse on the front.
The covers of pop nuggets and the three Hootie favorites went over just as big as the country chart-toppers. But Rucker’s brand of country — he’s more likely to mention coffee than booze, the radio than a pickup truck — was well-received, too, whether he was singing about the challenges of raising his daughter or his Southern state of mind no matter what state he’s in (as logos of the Minnesota sports teams flashed on the screen behind him).
Rucker gave a shout-out to Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who was in the audience, and saluted him with a shot of booze. Actually, for those keeping score, the singer did three shots during the show, with various salutes including country radio and country audiences.
And speaking of the homeboys, Rucker is the rare act who tipped his cap to Minnesota’s most famous musicmakers with his two-song encore — “Wagon Wheel,” which was sketched out by Bob Dylan and completed by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and has become Rucker’s biggest country song, and Prince’s “Purple Rain,” delivered, of course, with fiddle and pedal steel guitar.
Perhaps that encore was the way a double-lottery winner doubles down at a Minnesota casino.