Hootie no longer is everywhere, but Rucker is around

Pop frontman lowers profile, widens scope on path here

Music: In Concert/CDs

October 14, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Inside a posh hotel lounge in downtown Baltimore, the casually dressed guy seated in the middle of the busy room goes unnoticed.

But if it were 1995, the presence of Darius Rucker -- his Ray -Ban shades resting on top of his bald head, a wide grin lighting up his ruggedly handsome face -- would have caused pandemonium for sure. Back then, he was the frontman for Hootie & the Blowfish, the most ubiquitous rock group of '95. If you didn't hear such smashes as "Let Her Cry" and "Hold My Hand" on pop radio every other minute, then you saw the videos in constant rotation on VH1 and MTV. If you didn't catch the guys on those stations, they were on Saturday Night Live, The Late Show, The Tonight Show. You read the cover story in Rolling Stone and caught the VH1 Behind the Music special a few years after the band's debut, 1994's Cracked Rear View, sold 20 million copies worldwide (13 million in the United States alone).

Now, a decade after Hootie & the Blowfish exploded and vanished off the pop-rock radar, Rucker chills on a sofa, talking about crooning standards with a 20-piece orchestra. He will delve into the Frank Sinatra songbook Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House for a concert benefiting the Ben Carson Scholars Fund.

"Ben is a friend of mine," the South Carolina native says of the famed Maryland neurosurgeon. "When he asked me to do this, I didn't think twice, you know? He's such a light, such a great person."

It's a little difficult picturing Rucker -- who's decked out in a loose-fitting black shirt, jeans and burgundy loafers -- on stage in a dapper tux, swingin' Sinatra. After all, this is the same guy whose plaintive, grainy voice enlivened blues-rock numbers like "Only Wanna Be With You." Rucker's crooning "Come Fly With Me"?

"We've done standards for charity shows before," the 38-year-old singer-musician says. "When people come they don't know what to expect. They know [the music of] Hootie, and some know my solo record [the overlooked 2002 R&B outing, Back to Then]. This is so different. But I'm a big Sinatra fan. And people are usually pleasantly surprised when they hear me do the standards."

In addition to songs made famous by Old Blue Eyes -- "New York, New York," "The Lady Is a Tramp" -- Rucker will throw in Tom Waits' "A Little Trip to Heaven" and a big-band rendering of Hootie's "Let Her Cry."

"It's amazing having the 20-piece orchestra behind you and the power of that," he says. "When I approach [the standards], I'm not trying to sound like Sinatra. It's tough to do that anyway. I just try to bring a little of who I am to the songs. We want people to leave happy."

Since his meteoric rise to fame in the mid-'90s, Rucker and the rest of Hootie & the Blowfish have maintained a low profile. The group followed up Cracked Rear View with 1996's Fairweather Johnson, which made its debut at No. 1, sold 2 million copies in four months but failed to generate any huge hits.

Then came the inevitable backlash. Popular tastes turned more to hip-hop and teen pop, and seemingly overnight the melodic, catchy tunes of Hootie & the Blowfish were no longer hip. They seemed corny. And although the band's 1998 record, Musical Chairs, sold gold, the group that originated in the late '80s at the University of South Carolina receded from the pop landscape and took a much-needed break.

Rucker, in the meantime, signed with Hidden Beach Recordings, a neo-soul label and home to Jill Scott, and put out Back to Then in the summer of 2002. As a child in Charleston, S.C., Rucker had absorbed Al Green, Sam Cooke and Gladys Knight records. So the pop star, despite no prior connections with the R&B crowd, felt it was a natural move to release a straight-up soul album (albeit a safe and very polished one). With no lilting rock on it to appease his core fans, Back to Then flopped.

"It was a hard sale, I know," Rucker says, adjusting the shades on his head. "The people that bought it loved it. It's amazing when I go around the country, and so many people tell me, 'Hey, I can't believe your solo record didn't do better. But, hey, what are you gonna do when [the record is released] on a small label and you're known for just one thing? But I'm still happy with the record. I'm still proud of it."

The artist, still based in Charleston, also maintains a home in Towson for his 9-year-old daughter, Carolyn, and her mother. He is working on a reunion album with Hootie & the Blowfish, due out early next year.

"To me, there's no difference when I'm with the big band, solo or with the guys," Rucker says. "I just let the music take me. Hey, I might do a country record. But that's a ways off."

See Darius Rucker at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., Saturday night at 8. The performance benefits the Carson Scholars Fund, honoring the work of the Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson. For VIP tickets, which are $50- $150, call CSF at 410-828-1005 or visit www.tickets.com.

Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.

Pop frontman lowers profile, widens scope on path here

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