Aftermath always wondered what it was like to not be known to the public by your birth name, but by the name of your band. In the beginning, some club owners thought that David Lee Roth's name was Van Halen. I'm sure somewhere along the line Ian Anderson was called Jethro Tull to his face. Those, if you aren't in Jethro Tull, could be fighting words. "His name is Hootie, dammit!" screamed a gaggle of fans sitting two rows behind Aftermath Monday night, as Darius Rucker was introduced and made his way from the Ford truck to the stage. In the weeks leading up to the show, even Aftermath had to stop ourselves and say "Darius Rucker." We guess that goes with being the lead singer of an immensely successful, yet strangely not-so-popular, '90s pop rock group with a name like Hootie and the Blowfish. But why would anyone think his name could conceivably be Hootie? And why would a grown man enter public life proudly wearing that moniker? I guess Meat Loaf and Clay Aiken are crazy names too. Rucker is on a tear as of late, topping the country charts with two singles off last year's Learn To Live album and selling prodigious amounts of units in the midst of a record industry ice age.
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Those alternately surprised and confused by Rucker's country success must not have listened to the Blowfish. The quartet was steeped in Southern-rock jams, which were then fused with Rucker's own Al Green-lite croon. If you go back to Hootie's 1999 record Musical Chairs, the band experimented with tones and textures people like tonight's star Keith Urban would ride to the top of the charts just a few years later. So to say that Rucker is some sort of country outsider is a tad limiting. And in some circles, the color of his skin remains a factor, which is sad and disheartening. We hate to invoke his name again, but Urban is an Aussie. You don't hear anyone calling him out for not growing up in Mobile playing high school football. Monday, Rucker opened with "Forever Road," the leadoff track on Learn To Live. He's got new gray streaks in his beard and a bit more of a paunch in the middle, and he still rocks the frat-boy ballcap just like he always did. He had a small band, by rodeo standards - an organist, two guitarists, a bassist and drummer working behind him; all the other performers we've seen this rodeo season had veritable armies behind them. It was refreshing to see something stripped-down.
Describing the lyrical content of present-day Rucker's material, we could only come up with "divorce-core," It's full of regrets, kiss-offs, children, death and most of all, humility. "All I Want" is the most overtly-country sounding thing going here, with a screaming guitar line seemingly ripped from Dwight Yoakam's playbook. Better to steal from someone at least revered, than recycling hair-metal power ballads from White Lion like Rascal Flatts. He got the few album tracks out of the way to dig into the Hootie stuff, which got whoops and hollers from all over the scattered crowd. "Let Her Cry" has turned even twangier the second time around. A handful of covers, like Yoakam's "Guitars, Cadillacs" and Tracy Lawrence's "Time Marches On" seemed on the outset an attempt to ingratiate himself with the skeptical crowd, but Rucker's personality was enough. "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" was the third-to-last song and his most popular solo track to date. With lines about "work, hurt, whiskey," it's also probably the most universal as well. Closing out with Hank Jr.'s "Family Tradition" was pretty ballsy, but Rucker wasn't doing that as some sort of honky-tonk rite of passage. Because the folks who would be won over by that weren't there Monday. To Rucker, the fans in the audience who have followed him since Cracked Rear View, and met him again last night after a decade, are the ones that mattered most.