God, it seems, is a Hootie fan.
With a stiff drizzle spitting over Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre Sunday night, Hootie and the Blowfish dove into Let Her Cry, the gospelly hit about letting tears fall down like rain. By the end of the song, the skies had cleared up, with a pop of lightning punctuating the applause like a clap of almighty approval.
“Whoa!” shouted Darius Rucker, gasping on behalf of the nearly sold-out crowd.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. But then, there’s a lot of that going around for Hootie and the Blowfish these days.
Twenty-five years after their world-eating album Cracked Rear View, Rucker and his reassembled South Carolina bandmates are in the midst of one of this summer’s surprise smash tours, a ’90s nostalgiafest alongside Barenaked Ladies.
The bands — both of which, it will astonish you to learn, actually formed during the Reagan administration — are receiving overdue career resurgences, with Barenaked Ladies entering the Canadian Music Hall of Fame last year, and critic after critic after critic giving Hootie a long-deserved historical reappraisal. It’s a mass panic of fans realizing, “Wait, were these guys good the whole time?” And it’s paying huge dividends at will call.
While the Blowfish have said new music is coming in 2019, Sunday’s show was a celebration of the old stuff, down the tie-dye graphics and vintage photos and flyers splashed across the backdrop. A couple of Rucker’s solo country hits (Wagon Wheel, Alright) made an appearance, as did a few others filtered through an Americana lens, (Fine Line, Running From an Angel), all to the delight of what felt like a country-heavy crowd.
But perhaps the reason Rucker’s never officially disbanded the old band is that he still finds it crazy fun to play a (supremely stripped-down) rock star. With guitarist Mark Bryan bouncing around like a campus-quad sack-hacker, Rucker strummed and bellowed out most of Cracked Rear View, from the inescapable (Only Wanna Be With You, Time, the stone-cold-unassailable, come-at-me American classic Hold My Hand) to the relatively deep (the ramshackle Drowning, the soulful, stripped-down Goodbye).
In a post-Heartbreakers world, there’s something heartening about Hootie’s healthy heartland vibes on the bounding State Your Peace, I Go Blind or I Will Wait. It’s an earnest, crunchy aesthetic that feels so close to the cusp of couture — just listen to Vampire Weekend’s loose, earthy new Father of the Bride and you'll see — yet resembles the comfort of a zip-up fleece.
Rucker, for sure, rarely looks as happy as he did singing some of his own old favorites, like Losing My Religion by his idols R.E.M. Once again, he was just another singer in a college-town party band — only this time, he had the rest of the band right there with him. They took Old Man and Me (When I Get to Heaven) and sprinted with it, splicing in snippets of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Earth, Wind and Fire’s Shining Star, with Rucker rapping and Bryan screeching out scratchy solos like Tom Morello.
Barenaked Ladies, too, are a well-oiled machine in 2019, despite parting ways with co-founding singer Steven Page in 2009. Thirty years in, they haven’t lost their goofy sense of humor.
“We’ve been doing this since you had to rewind your medium with a pencil,” singer Ed Robertson said before Brian Wilson. "That is not a euphemism! That is a literal way to rewind a cassette!”
Amid fits of rain, lightning and a brief lighting blowout (“Welcome to Tampa, America’s sauna!” Robertson yelled), the group rolled through jolly, jaunty renditions of It’s All Been Done, Pinch Me, One Week, The Old Apartment and even a full version of The Big Bang Theory theme, complete with a gnarly keyboard solo by Kevin Hearn.
“Anyone who’s not singing along in the choruses is a racist!” Robertson mock-scolded the crowd. Or at least a big stick in the mud.
Like Hootie, Barenaked Ladies brought the crowd to their feet with several covers — a tongue-in-cheek pop medley of Shallow, Old Town Road, Sicko Mode and High Hopes; then a barn-burning, set-closing Whole Lotta Love led by drummer Tyler Stewart. They even came back out with Hootie to sing With a Little Help From My Friends.
But only Hootie had the Holy Spirit in their corner.
During a folksy, bluegrassy shuffle through Will the Circle Be Unbroken — with bassist Dean Felber at the drums and Rucker, Bryan and drummer Jim Sonefeld huddled around a mic — the thunder once again picked up overhead, rumbling long and loud enough to be audible in the chorus.
However cool Hootie-haters think they were in the late ’90s, it couldn’t have been cool enough to be unmoved by that moment. The band couldn’t have planned it any better. Sometimes, the timing on these things just works.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.