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Live review: Darius Rucker at Club Nokia

October 21, 2009 | 12:31 pm

In a 70-minute set Tuesday, he displayed why it's not such a big leap from the Blowfish to country.


Darius Rucker, the lead singer and main songwriter for Hootie and the Blowfish, guided that lightweight alt-rock band to the top of the charts in the 1990s and out of the gate logged one of the biggest-selling albums of all time with "Cracked Rear View," which has sold more than 16 million copies. Now he's segued into a surprisingly successful second act as a country singer-songwriter.

Well, perhaps it's not that surprising. He's clearly studied all the elements that go into making a hit record on country radio today and packed them all into his 2008 debut album, "Learn to Live." The result? It's rapidly closing in on sales of 1 million copies.

He co-wrote all but one of the album's dozen songs, in which he channels heart-on-sleeve emotion ("It Won't Be Like This for Long"), hyper-romantic ballads ("History in the Making," "Forever Road") and front-porch swing philosophy (the title track, "If I Had Wings"). In "All I Want," he crafted a witty kiss-off that's destined for a long, healthy run in honky-tonk jukeboxes.

Rucker gamely zipped through nearly the entire album during his sold-out show Tuesday at Club Nokia, supplementing his 70-minute set with bar-band covers of a couple of other recent country hits, Jamey Johnson's "In Color" and Toby Keith's "Me and God Love Her," both of which inadvertently pointed up the comparative ordinariness of most of Rucker's compositions.


Rucker does have one big thing working in his favor that most other debut country acts don't: He is -- or at least he was -- a bona fide rock star. And country audiences just adore rock stars, as long as they play by country's rules. Rucker does, and that was evident Tuesday. He was resolutely self-effacing before the enthusiastic crowd, at one point saying, "Thanks for letting me in, country fans."

(When his debut single, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," topped the chart last year, he became the first African American singer to have a No. 1 country hit since Charley Pride in 1983.)

As a performer, Rucker is tirelessly likable and doesn't challenge listeners with too much information, lyrically or musically, or anything remotely resembling attitude. He employed his limited vocal range earnestly, and he deferentially referenced country mavericks Hank Williams Jr. and David Allan Coe with straightforward renditions, respectively, of "Family Tradition" and "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" -- he had sung the latter live during the Hootie days.

When he trotted out the Blowfish hits "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You," he demonstrated he hasn't made such a big leap after all -- just added some fiddle and occasional steel guitar to the same kind of bouncy feel-good tunes that helped Hootie connect in such a big way.

He deserves some extra credit for bringing Jypsi along as his opening act. The Nashville-based family band sizzled despite an inhospitably flat sound mix that sapped some of the richness of the vocal and instrumental interplay among singer-fiddlers Lillie Mae and Amber-Dawn Rische, their mandolinist sister Scarlett and guitarist-singer brother Frank.

Their harmonies, rooted in bluegrass but infused with punk spirit, are nothing short of wondrous, and teenage lead singer Lillie Mae has the vocal dexterity and emotive range that Alison Krauss also demonstrated at an early age. All the Rische siblings also happen to be stunningly accomplished instrumentalists who play with deceptive effortlessness.

Great things await -- if Jypsi ends up in the right hands for the major-label debut album that's in the works.


Photos: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times