Hootie & The Blowfish Play At Digital-Studio Debut

The group, which has a new album coming out, was chosen by Atlantic to launch the label's new Net venture.

NEW YORK -- If you were to look at Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker

as he performed a brief set in a futuristic digital studio at Atlantic Records on Thursday

(July 16), you wouldn't have thought that he was a guy with anything to prove.

Rather, he seemed as nonchalant and carefree as a chart-topping artist might be.

"That was some Afrograss," said a laughing Rucker, the South Carolina-based band's

lead singer, as he and his mates -- who are looking to rebound from their

sophomore-album slump -- finished warming up with a bluegrass-like tune for their

special performance at Atlantic Records in midtown Manhattan.

The group -- currently out promoting its upcoming album, Musical Chairs, which is

due in September -- was chosen by Atlantic to launch the label's new Internet venture,

an in-house digital-production studio for Web concerts, chats and press conferences.

The Hootie performance on Thursday was the first live cybercast from what has been

titled the "Digital Arena Studio."

For those who forget easily, Hootie & the Blowfish burst onto the music scene with their

hit-producing 1992 debut, Cracked Rear View, which sold more than 13 million

copies in the U.S. alone. The band's follow-up, Fairweather Johnson (1994),

entered the charts at #1, but its sales were comparatively lackluster to those of

Cracked Rear View.

Rucker and his bandmates, guitarist Mark Bryan, bassist Dean Felber and

drummer Jim Sonefeld, were animated during their mini-set, as dozens of media and

label representatives squeezed into the small room -- nicknamed "the lab" -- to see and

hear them. They were not acting like a band needing to make a big impression with its

next album.

"I guess we were the only band in town," Rucker said jokingly after

the performance, when asked why Hootie were chosen to inaugurate the new

facility.

But a label representative had a different explanation.

"We had a good experience online with them a few years ago when they were

live from Red Rocks [in Colorado]," said Nikke Slight, Atlantic's vice president of new

media, about why Hootie were chosen to do the label's first live cybercast.

"They have great ideas about using the medium. And they're one

of our biggest-selling artists."

Slight said Atlantic is planning future live cybercasts with Brandy, Tori

Amos, David Gaiza and the Warped tour.

And despite the label's intentions in getting the word out about its Internet studio, the

jokes flowed freely throughout the afternoon, as the band, sitting in a circle with acoustic

instruments in "MTV Unplugged" fashion, previewed its new songs, including the cuts "I

Will Wait" and the intriguingly titled "Desert Mountain Showdown." These tracks seemed

much more folkish than the pop sheen of the band's first two discs. Also in the set was a

cover of John Hiatt's "Love Gets Strange."

With lines such as "you were too dignified to mention why your dress was torn,"

it sounded as if the new album's lyrics might be a little more probing than

earlier Hootie hits such as "Let Her Cry," which the band performed at the new studio in a

rockabilly style.

Rucker, in jeans and a green floppy hat, continued to keep the tone of the set light as he

ad-libbed the lyrics: "So I sat right down and had a Budweiser beer and felt sorry for

myself -- I'm good at that." He also playfully changed the song's chorus to "Let Her Be"

and sounded like Paul McCartney, a la his country-rock hit "Rocky Raccoon," in

one of his most lighthearted moments.

At one point, Rucker even began singing musical directions such as "Turn my

mandolin down to D flat." The other guys chimed in periodically with

falsetto background vocals.

The atmosphere tensed a little after the third song, when Atlantic honcho Val Azzoli

arrived to take photos with Hootie & the Blowfish. The band, which had been scheduled

to play only three tunes, graciously went on with additional numbers as label people did

their best to convince Azzoli -- who needed to leave for a meeting -- to wait until Hootie

were good and ready to stop playing.

After a phone call or two, Azzoli decided to wait, and, following the Hiatt

number, a throng of Atlantic staff, including Azzoli, crowded into

the room to be photographed with the band.

"I guess we were picked to get the buzz going for the (new) album," Bryan

said when the music was over.