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Darius Rucker sings with Hootie and the Blowfish on Wednesday night, the first of three consecutive concerts at Colonial Life Arena as part of the band's 'Group Therapy Tour' on September 11, 2019. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

Hootie & the Blowfish, Barenaked Ladies; Colonial Life Arena, Columbia; Sept. 11, 2019

This did not feel like a normal concert at Colonial Life Arena.

Golf carts zipped up and down the blocks around the venue, offering rides to attendees walking up. An acoustic cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide” wafted up the hill from the venue, played by a guy set up beside a Coors Light Streamline serving cold-filtered refreshment.

A sidewalk artist put the finishing touches on detailed drawings of Dean Felber, Mark Bryan, Darius Rucker and Jim “Soni” Sonefeld. Directly above him, a huge banner hung from the roof of the arena, stretching nearly to the ground, proclaiming that those members of Hootie & the Blowfish would take over the building with their Group Therapy tour for the next three nights.

I’d only witnessed one scene equal to this outside of Colonial Life — when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament brought early-round games to Columbia back in March.

This was Hootie Madness.

And unsurprisingly so. The biggest band to form in Columbia was back in town to play the last three shows on their first tour in a decade, the last American dates (save an appearance next week at Las Vegas’ iHeartRadio Music Festival) before their first album since 2005, Imperfect Circle, drops in November.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of Hootie’s debut full-length, Cracked Rear View, an album whose affable jangles and earnest belts rocketed the group to stardom and kickstarted an immensely popular (and deeply divisive) wave of similarly soft-rocking acts.

As you’d expect for a band returning home to play three straight arena shows, Hootie did little to placate the haters. This was a show for the believers.

The set kicked off with a blank stage and a reworked version of Samuel L. Jackson’s famed Ezekiel 25:17 monologue from Pulp Fiction, which, like Cracked Rear View, also came out in 1994. This version praised a righteous man who is “the finder of lost musicians.” Mounting the stage, the band lit into a crisp and propulsive performance of the breezy rocker “Hannah Jane,” the Cracked opener.

The nostalgia was pretty much unending after that.

There were stories about campus life at the University of South Carolina, where the members met, and one about how drummer Sonefeld surprised everybody by playing a song he’d written during his Hootie audition — the eventual Cracked hit “Hold My Hand,” which they proceeded to play. A passionate strum through the feels-heavy ballad “Let Her Cry” made use of the large and vivid screen behind the band, projecting the outside of a Waffle House — it started to pour when Rucker hit the chorus, where “the tears fall down like rain,” his age-roughened voice matching the melancholy words.

“I Go Blind,” played with an appropriate mix of laidback confidence and insistent verve, took place in front of a screen split between a bar backdrop festooned with a Gamecocks pennant and old-school posters of the band, which were subbed out for shots of each member playing and singing later in the song.

Further stoking the show’s USC-centric bent, guitarist Bryan quipped after the song that the band’s only purpose in performing this weekend is to get Columbia hyped to root the Gamecocks past Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Still, while Hootie reveled in the past, they also embraced what they are in 2019. Even when they weren’t rollicking and twanging through new single “Rollin’ ” or laying down another fiddle-stoked retread of “Wagon Wheel,” Rucker — bedecked in a black Gamecocks ball cap, black T-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots — strutted and shimmied across the stage, his presence coming across far more Kenny Chesney acolyte than mid-’90s radio rocker, not unexpected given his success during the last decade and change as a mainstream country singer. A Nashville lean to the new Hootie record would be far from unexpected.

No matter what mode they were in, the band played well — Bryan’s guitar lines were particularly sharp, and former dB Peter Holsapple added some rich keyboards and pedal steel in his auxiliary role; though Rucker’s voice got gravellier and less distinct as the night wore on, it remained a commanding instrument.

As a non Hootie fan, there are plenty of nits I could pick — such as the messy, schticky cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” (assisted by eminently hammy openers Barenaked Ladies) and the insertion of a grinning-but-clunky take on Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down on It” into the otherwise winning sprint through the definitive Hootie hit, “Only Wanna Be With You” that closed the concert.

But this show wasn’t meant to convince me of anything. And based on the enthusiastic packed house — which stood and danced and sang for pretty much all of Hootie’s two-hour performance — they know who they’re playing for way better than I do.

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