Although mainstream country music unfortunately remains a safe haven for too many bad rock bands, there are the occasional cross-over acts that raise the bar.
In an easy-rolling 1 hour and 45 minutes on Thursday at CFE Arena, Darius Rucker showed that his reincarnation as a country star is an inspired one. He won’t make anyone forget George Jones – or Alan Jackson, for that matter – but he sang and strummed an accessible combination of original songs and covers with charm.
Dressed in blue jeans, a Nike ball cap and matching black shirt and vest, Rucker looked as casual as a guy who had just strolled off a golf course. His wardrobe hasn’t changed much since he was playing South Carolina bars before hitting it big with Hootie & the Blowfish in the mid-1990s.
Although that band couldn’t maintain the momentum of its 1994 hit album “Cracked Rear View,” the music was always likable – a trait that Rucker retains as a solo act.
There was a lot of the old Hootie magic in his opening song, “Radio,” with its breezy rhythm and catchy chorus. Performing on a stage equipped with giant video screens and dozens of swirling spotlights, he mined the well-explored country-rock vein with “Heartbreak Road,” “This,” “Alright” and others.
Obviously, there were a handful of Hootie songs, but the nostalgia didn’t overpower the appeal of the new songs. Rucker found interesting ways to re-invent the old favorites, framing “Let Her Cry” with a solitary acoustic introduction and flavoring “Only Wanna Be With You” with banjo and fiddle.
Alas, the chemistry of the Eli Young Band’s country-rock blend wasn’t as precise. The band’s hour-long opening set was a noisy sludge of electric guitars and drums that overpowered songs that included a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.”
Rucker did plenty of covers, too, tackling songs by John Mellencamp (“Pink Houses”), Jerry Reed (“East Bound and Down”) and Hank Williams Jr. (“Family Tradition”). The latter turned into a rowdy sing-along with the Eli Young Band and singer-songwriter Corey Smith, who also delivered a 30-minute opening set.
Of course, Rucker encored with his hit “Wagon Wheel," a song co-written by Bob Dylan.
Rucker ‘s no Bob Dylan, either, but he makes a good country star.