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MUSIC REVIEW

Rucker sounds right at home in country

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2009
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Talk about the crossover of a crossover: Back in the '90s with his unfortunately named bar band Hootie and the Blowfish, frontman Darius Rucker pulled off the neat trick of being an African-American singer-songwriter from the South who scored big with the frat-party and (predominantly white) pop-rock set. The coup was mildly intriguing, even if the music was less so.

Now, 16 million Hootie album sales later, Rucker is crossing over again, this time as a country artist. In fact, he's become the first African-American artist in 25 years - since Charley Pride - to land a No. 1 hit on the country charts, no small feat given the crowded field of high-hatted stud muffins and big-haired beauties.

Judging from the sold-out crowd at the Hard Rock Cafe Thursday night, the new genre suits the singer's strengths as well as his weaknesses. Backed by a second acoustic guitarist during his 60-minute sit-down set, Rucker showed that both his husky baritone and his meat-and-potatoes music are sturdy but stolid, and solidly in keeping with modern country's penchant for bold, broad brushstrokes of sound and feeling.

In fact, the boilerplate lyric imagery that stood in for specific emotional details or gestures (love as roads taken, tears as rain falling) on the Hootie anthems "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry" could be readily found in new, twangier fare such as the opener, "Forever Road," and the catchy hook, line, and sinker of his smash hit "Don't Think I Don't Think About It." The truest and most autobiographical-sounding song of the night, it turned out, wasn't a Rucker song at all. It was a concert-closing cover of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition," a tune about flouting expectations and changing direction.

Throughout the set, Rucker was an easygoing, affable presence - way more fun to be around than would be suggested by his bathos-bathed ode to domesticity "It Won't Be Like This for Long," about how fast kids grow up (you better enjoy 'em while you can), or the well-meaning but mawkish ballad "If I Had Wings," which earnestly wondered why we hate. If he had wings, Rucker pledged during the encore, sincerity writ large in the block letters of the lyrics, he'd "fly up to heaven" to get some answers. Now that, even more than crossover success, would be a neat trick.

DARIUS RUCKER At: the Hard Rock Cafe, Thursday night

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