Hootie Primed For Comeback
When Darius Rucker announced from The Township stage a year ago that this would be the last Hootie and the Blowfish show for awhile, no one knew when the band would perform again. Not the fans, not Hootie’s management team, not even the band members themselves.
Some folks even wondered if they’d ever see Rucker, Mark Bryan, Dean Felber and Jim Sonefeld playing that unmistakable Hootie music again.
Well, Hootie fans can breathe easy. The Blowfish are back in the hunt.
Last week, the band played a string of club gigs in the Northeast, road testing new songs that have been in the works for months. Later this week, they leave for Los Angeles where they’ll reunite with producer Don Gehman and begin recording their third album.
And based on the response they received during sold-out shows in joints like the Graffiti club in Pittsburgh, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., and Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn., the Blowfish should be feeling pretty good about their comeback chances.
"It’s been fantastic, man," Bryan said a few days ago from the busy sidewalks of Boston where he, Felber and guitar tech Ford McCabe were searching for some supper and passing Felber’s cell phone back and forth. "There’s been moments during the new songs when the crowd is standing there with their mouths wide open. ... They don’t know the songs yet but they hear our sound and know it’s for real. You can tell from the look on their faces that it’s like a new feeling."
A new feeling maybe, but the original, good-time Hootie vibe seems to have survived, too. Felber said the new songs bear the band’s trademark harmonies and choruses. But some new stylistic wrinkles have been added as well, he said. Felber described the new material as landing somewhere between the band’s debut album, the 15-million-selling Cracked Rear View, and its 2-million-in-sales follow-up, Fairweather Johnson.
"It’s not as introspective as Fairweather Johnson and it doesn’t have as much of that young, we-can-conquer-the-world spirit of Cracked Rear View," Felber said. "There’s also a kind of folk and bluegrass influence on some of the songs."
A new single tentatively is scheduled to arrive at radio stations in early August, with the album to follow in September.
For local fans, however, the band will pick up right where they left off, with their Monday After the Masters benefit golf tournament and concert Monday. A concert follows at The Township at 9 PM.
Too much fun. In an era of one-hit wonders and here-today, gone-tomorrow rock bands, Hootie enjoyed an enormously successful run between 1995 and 1997, selling millions of albums, winning two Grammy Awards and playing sold-out concerts around the world.
But the strain of spending two solid years in the spotlight, not to mention the nine years of hard work it took to get there, began to show last spring.
The Blowfish were burned out.
"Yeah, we really were," Felber said. "A lot of that had to do with this nonstop mentality of ‘don’t slow down,’ because that’s what got us to where we were. When it came time to actually slow down and give ourselves some space, we didn’t know how to do it. We had to burn out to figure out how to do that."
So the Blowfish took an indefinite leave of absence. They weren’t sure how long it would last - maybe six months, a year, two years. Why should they be in a hurry? After all, they’d accomplished more than any other guitar-pop band of the ’90s. Some also felt that the group’s constant touring, television appearances and radio airplay had overexposed the band, causing fan interest to wane. But it wasn’t just the fans’ fire that needed rekindling.
"We needed to distance ourselves from being Hootie and the Blowfish," Felber said. "We wanted it to be fresh again when we got back together."
It was a goal the Blowfish weren’t always sure they’d achieve. For almost six months, the four band members went their separate ways, writing songs on their own and trying to settle into less-hectic lifestyles. (Bryan became a proud father for the first time when his wife Laura gave birth to a baby girl a couple of months ago.)
But when the band reunited last fall, things didn’t automatically fall into place.
"It wasn’t clicking right away," Bryan said, "mostly because we hadn’t hung out together. It showed me how much our personal energy is involved in our band energy. The songs just weren’t coming together. But, after we spent some time together and did some cool things, it started working."
The cool things included trips to two retreats where they hoped to rediscover their collaborative powers, one to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and another to Phoenix. The change of scenery paid off.
"When we got out there (Jackson Hole) it happened so fast and came so easily, we thought, ‘Wow, how could we ever lose this!,’" Felber said. "Everything kind of made sense at that moment."
Out of the shell. Since the first of the year, Hootie has been toiling away on the new material, mostly holed up in the abandoned Five Points nightclub, Rockafellas’, one of the venues where the fellows first cut their performing teeth 10 years ago.
"We hadn’t written songs together in so long that it took us a little while to find out which direction we were heading," Felber said. "But it’s come together the last two months."
Both musical and personal directions have been coming together for Hootie, and the new perspective that comes from growing older seems to have energized the band.
"Yeah, totally, Felber said. "The reason I tell people the new songs are between Fairweather Johnson and Cracked Rear View is because of our outlook. We’re not coming off three years straight of being on the road, which was the case with Fairweather Johnson. We’d been living in a bus for three years.
"This time, we’ve been living in South Carolina and enjoying ourselves and enjoying life, and I think we all found ourselves again. It took awhile after our last tour to figure out where we were in life. We had been living in a shell."
The club tour has helped Hootie and the Blowfish come out of their shell. They’ve been playing two-hour sound checks before shows, and the gig at Toad’s Place in Connecticut lasted almost three hours. That kind of intensity can take a toll on a bass player’s fingers.
"We didn’t even realize we’d been out there that long because we have so many songs now," Felber said.
"We might actually be polished by the time we get to The Township," he added laughing. "At least my blisters might actually be healed by then."