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ONE DAY AT A TIME // Puffed up, they're not

Without a doubt, there must be days when the four guys who make up Hootie and the Blowfish wake up to see if the ruby slippers have left their feet.

They are the most talked-about pop act on the planet today, having fed the public some 7-million copies of their debut LP, Cracked Rear View, since its spring release. Yet the sense has been that they are an act that has not fully plugged itself into the bigger-than-life, bigger-than-anything world of pop music.

For the past few months, they have played an endless string of sold-out 10,000-seat-plus venues. But they have not shown even a hint of jaded angst, so prevalent among the headline-grabbing stars who peer from the cover of the entertainment magazines.

"More than anything, we're afraid of becoming rock stars," drummer Jim Sonefeld told Rolling Stone recently. "I guess we haven't let fame sink in."

Fame has been a freight train to Sonefeld, lead singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan and bassist Dean Felber, who just over a year ago tumbled out of a road-weary van to play free "exposure" concerts, such as the one last October for a capacity crowd at Jannus Landing.

Then, they were not much more than a bar band that had plodded the clubs and frat parties in and around South Carolina _ nice guys who felt sorry enough for the few hundred fans who were turned away that "they grabbed some acoustic guitars and played a set of tunes for the crowd on the sidewalk," remembers promoter Rob Douglas.

While they may share the alternative quaintness of acoustic instruments driven by electric rhythms that once surrounded groups like R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, Hootie's pond has led straight into the pop mainstream from the start.

"In rock 'n' roll, you've got to do something whacked to be different," Sonefeld said. "And now, being ultra-normal is the most whacked thing of all."

A deft blend of jangly guitars, groove beats and palpable melodies puts Hootie and the Blowfish somewhere comfortably between the Eagles and the Grateful Dead, a sound that's fresh to teen ears while friendly to sensitive graying heads, as well.

All of which has made the band darlings of AOR radio with immensely popular tunes like Let Her Cry, Hold My Hand and Only Wanna Be With You, each hit bigger than the last as Hootiemania has cranked up to full steam.

And while Hootie members consider the whole thing a team effort (they take equal credit for songwriting), they acknowledge the primary focus of vocalist Rucker, whose booming baritone drives the emotion of the music.

The 29-year-old Rucker bespeaks the easygoing yet impudent attitude of the band. Despite its commercial success, the group has often been the target of music critics who call the outfit musically lightweight and opportunistic.

"There are some people who wave us off and never think about us again," Rucker said. "Doing things the right way is anti-rock

'n' roll. While a lot of people focus on the glamor of rock, on being cool, we've focused on our careers."

Those careers are now in overdrive, Rucker acknowledged, and one of the first things they plan to do when this tour ends is to finish the next LP and try to figure out what to do next.

For as the members of Hootie and the Blowfish will attest, in this business, there are surprises at every turn.

AT A GLANCE

Hootie and the Blowfish are in concert tonight at 8 at the USF Sun Dome. All seats are sold out.

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