Maybe Hootie & the Blowfish’s ridiculously odd moniker made more sense than we thought. They blew up like a proverbial blowfish — have you ever seen one in an aquarium? — in 1994. Hootie’s “Cracked Rear View” became the 10th-bestselling album of all time in the United States.
Then Hootie, the kingpins of 1990s frat-rock nation, quickly became a punchline in “Jerry Maguire” and “Saturday Night Live” and pretty much disappeared. Now 25 years later, Hootie is blowing up again. On its first tour in 11 years with its first album since 2005 on its way, the South Carolina band is bigger than ever. On Thursday at the sold-out grandstand at the State Fair, Hootie played to its biggest Minnesota crowd ever, 13,147.
What the 110-minute performance underscored is that Hootie & the Blowfish are just a bar band that got lucky, part of a lineage of the good-time Doobie Brothers, the sports-loving Huey Lewis & the News and country-pop Zac Brown Band.
On Thursday, Hootie — which combines a becoming casualness with tight musicianship — was at its best doing covers. In fact, the show turned around when the group played “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M., which frontman Darius Rucker, 52, said was his favorite band back in the day. Suddenly, the singer seemed to be having fun.
A mid-show stretch of covers — sandwiched around two Hootie faves, the peppy “I Will Wait” and the gospelly “Let Her Cry” — breathed life into the quartet (augmented by three musicians) that had seemed to be going through the motions.
Hootie gave Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do” a banjo-boosted country feel, and then the band went full-on country, harmonizing on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and a fiddle-fueled “Desert Mountain Showdown.” And nothing was more gorgeous and touching than an acoustic treatment of Tom Waits’ sweet love ballad “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You.”
If there was ever any doubt that the rockers known as Hootie have deep country roots, then it became clear with the reaction to the Nashville hits that Rucker has enjoyed during his solo career for the past decade. With its anti-big city sensibilities “Alright” sparked the crowd, and “Wagon Wheel” found Rucker shimmying, the fans singing along and the fiddler and mandolinist each getting two solos.
Rucker certainly has one of the most distinctive male voices in country and rock, for that matter. However, at times at the fair, his voice sounded strained or gravelly, though his rich molasses sound was in full glory on the jangly, ebullient “Time,” a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” (featuring opening act Barenaked Ladies) and a closing mashup of Hootie’s feel-good “Only Wanna Be with You” and Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down on It.”
In the end, it felt like a pleasant 25-year reunion of your favorite college frat-party band.
Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies were a well-chosen opening act. Not only are they fellow 1990s hitmakers, but Ed Robertson and crew delivered clever, catchy pop songs in such an amiable way. Robertson improvised a fairly lengthy rap about Fairchild, the Minnesota State Fair mascot whom he argued looks like a chipmunk, not a gopher.
The spontaneous piece fit nicely with such BNL breezy pop hits as “One Week” and “If I Had a Million Dollars.” And, like Hootie, BNL had a rollicking time with a medley of covers, including Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” What a hoot.