NEW YORK (Variety) - Generally, when a band that's grown accustomed to playing arenas returns to a more intimate setting, there's a palpable sense of discomfort. The gestures are too big, the amps too loud and the audience proximity too nerve-wracking to make for a pleasant experience.
Hootie and the Blowfish, however, managed to avoid all of those pitfalls at a rare New York club performance that let the band showcase its bar-band roots in the most positive way.
The show was ostensibly designed to promote the just-released ''Scattered, Smothered and Covered'' album -- itself a collection of the sort of cover versions that made Hootie a Dixie-fried frat-party mainstay in the late '80s but also allowed an up-close glimpse at the band's deceptively clever interplay.
Yes, the band meted out a smattering of hits -- ''Let Her Cry'' drawing the biggest audience response -- but for the most part, they channeled that four-set-a-night past life, trotting out oddball covers both from the new disc and from the dusty corners of their memories. Some of the lengthy set's best moments were contained in that latter group, including such surprises as a furious rendition of Santana's ''Black Magic Woman,'' on which drummer Jim Sonnefeld took lead vocals, with frontman Darius Rucker adding an impressive conga workout.
Shifting gears radically, the group also tackled the gospel standard ''Will the Circle Be Unbroken'' and Kool & the Gang's ''Get Down On It'' with considerable dexterity -- but a fair amount of trepidation, as if the members were speaking the unfamiliar musical dialects phonetically.
That was less of a problem on the down-home college-rock that Rucker and company cut their teeth on -- like ''I Go Blind,'' from the catalog of obscure Canadian popsters 54-40 or a pair of Silos' songs (''Commodore Peter'' and ''I'm Over You'') that brought that underrated band's leader, Walter Salas-Humara, out for guest vocals.
Such collaborative moments -- which also included labelmate Edwin McCain's cameo on a version of Bill Withers' ''Use Me'' -- pointed up Hootie's cohesiveness as a unit, which is strong enough to stand up to stand-out guests.
Similarly, the band demonstrated an easygoing attitude towards onstage roles, with Rucker ceding center stage willingly -- most notably when he rapped through two verses of Public Enemy's ''Fight the Power'' before passing the vocal baton to guitarist Mark Bryan for a smooth version of Earth, Wind and Fire's ''Shining Star.''
Hootie and the Blowfish plays the House of Blues in Los Angeles on Nov. 11.
Presented by Delsener/Slater Entertainment. Musicians: Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Dean Felber, Jim Sonnefeld, John Nau, Fish. Special Guests; Edwin McCain, Walter Salas-Humara. Reviewed Oct. 24, 2000.