brent johnson wrote this piece on the ’90s megastars for The Trenton Times in 2006 …
Jim “Soni” Sonefeld doesn’t dwell on it much, but there was a time when his band was the biggest musical act on the planet.
“You sometimes get nostalgic, but it doesn’t pay to go back for too long,” says Sonefeld, the drummer for Hootie & The Blowfish. “You’ve got to live in the now and hope that you kept a bunch of pictures from back then.”
Want proof that time really does fly? It’s been 12 years since Hootie & The Blowfish released Cracked Rear View, the major label debut that catapulted them to stardom, saturating radio with its hook-heavy, bar-band pop.
“It’s funny,” Sonefeld says, thinking about the album’s success, which the band never replicated. “You see bands now rising and falling and everywhere in between, and you start putting it in perspective that bands have a limited shelf value, if they’re not careful. Sustaining a long-term career is a big game.”
But while many critics wrote them off and records sales have dwindled, a long-term career is exactly what Hootie has — albeit on a much smaller scale. The South Carolina quartet has released five albums over the last decade, the most recent being Looking For Lucky, which hit stores last year.
Now, the band is currently on a multi-city tour in support of a new live album, Live In Charleston, to be released Tuesday. They’ll stop at the Sovereign Bank Arena tomorrow night.
Twelve years on, they’re even drawing fresh faces to their shows.
“There are a lot of young kids in the front rows,” Sonefeld marvels
during a phone interview, taking a break during a stop in San
Francisco. “Maybe their parents had the record.”
It’s likely: Cracked Rear View has sold 16 million copies since its
1994 release, making it one of the touchstones of ’90s pop-rock. Formed at the University of South Carolina in the late 1980s, Hootie took their name from two friends: one who wore owl-like glasses (hence, Hootie) and another who had big, puffy cheeks (hence, the Blowfish).
After becoming a popular local bar act, the band recorded Cracked Rear View for Atlantic Records. The album was full of straight-forward, but catchy, heart-on-your sleeve pop-rock — an antidote to the heavy, angst-ridden grunge and alt-rock that defined the early ’90s. It also didn’t hurt that the group sported a laid-back, universally appealing frat-band image.
Soon, their first single, the anthemic “Hold My Hand,” was a Top 10 record, with a clip in heavy rotation on MTV and VH1. Three more hits from Cracked followed — “Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be With You,” and “Time” — and in 1996, the band won two Grammy awards, including Best New Artist. They beat out the other musical phenomenon that year: Alanis Morissette.
Repeating that type of success, however, was practically impossible. The band’s 1996 follow-up, Fairweather Johnson, also reached No. 1 on the charts, going platinum four times, and even their third album (1998’s Musical Chairs) spawned a hit: “I Will Wait,” which reached the Top 20. But none of their albums even came close to enormous success of Cracked, and in the following years, the pop-rock that dominated mid-’90s radio was replaced by boy bands, hip-hop and slick R&B.
Not that the band itself was too worried about emerging from the shadow of its debut.
“To us, we moved on — much earlier than before the second album even came out,” says Sonefeld, the Hootie member with the long blonde hair who went shirtless in the video for “Hold My Hand.”
“We’ve been playing the songs on Cracked Rear View in bars since the late ’80s. We were happy to move on to the second record with the knowledge that nobody really sells 10 million records twice.”
Many fans, however, recoiled when they saw lead singer Darius Rucker, the face of the group, singing a hokey country song in a cheesy Burger King commercial, dressed in a garish cowboy outfit. Was it a sign of how far Hootie had fallen?
“He got an offer and it was presented as something very off the wall, left-of-center, a very weird commercial,” Sonefeld says in defense of the band’s bald-headed singer. “I think it came across as cornier to a lot of the fans, which I don’t understand. To me, that’s just Darius in a weird cowboy outfit, singing a weird song for a Burger King commercial.”
Shortly after touring in support of a greatest hits compilation in 2004, the band returned to the studio with Looking For Lucky, an album that has reminded a lot fans of Hootie’s most popular period. In many ways, the album has a similar feel to Cracked Rear View — the rootsy, acoustic undertones, the radio-friendly choruses, the warm gruff of Rucker’s voice. In fact, it was even produced by Don Gehman, the man that helmed the Cracked sessions.
“To me, it fits in with stuff that we were doing 10 years ago,” Sonefeld says of the record. “It feels that fresh.”
So fresh, he’s proud to put Lucky among the band’s best recordings. “I think, as a whole, from the first song to the last, it’s definitely the most consistent work we’ve had in a while,” Sonefeld says of the record, which placed in the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 200 album chart last year.
As for the title, it’s something their manager suggested: a story about a lost dog named Lucky.
“It was just a joke in that ‘lost dog’ motif,” Sonefeld says. “But it means even more than that. It means, you’re always looking for the next best thing, the next best break.”
Maybe a break that will help Hootie & The Blowfish be around another 12 years from now? Even if that doesn’t happen, the band is content with its place in the annals of popular music.
“We feel grateful to even have a place in music history, frankly,” Sonefeld says. “We know that any time it could have gone by the wayside — that if the stars weren’t aligned, we could have been just a footnote. We hope that we’re more than a footnote”