In the summer of 1995, I had my first job working as a dishwasher at a local tavern in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The chef was a huge jerk who would fly off the handle about the smallest things, convinced in his mind that he belonged in the kitchen of a Michelin-star restaurant instead of making burgers and nachos for Chicago tourists. There was another cook—a guy who had his paycheck garnished for ringing up thousands of dollars in charges to phone sex lines at the bar after hours—who was a major creep and who was a little too into WCW-era Hulkamania.
I remember those guys and the early days washing dishes more than I remember some whole jobs I would have later in life. I managed a furniture store in Alabama and can’t remember the name of a single salesperson, but I remember what it felt like scrubbing melted cheese off of ceramic plates in the basement. I can still see the webbings of melted cheese floating to the top of the dishwater. The smell that would never come off my fingers still lingers in my mind.
The soundtrack of that year was, without a doubt, Hootie & The Blowfish. The bar had this CD jukebox that allowed you to pick a song off an album or play the whole album for like five bucks. It seems hard to imagine in the age of TouchTunes and Spotify, but people used to not only listen to full albums, they would listen to full albums in a bar. On purpose. We had one waitress who, every day without fail, would come in, put in her five dollars, and play Hootie & The Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View album. Sometimes she’d do it twice. Sometimes she’d do it and then a customer would do it, and then another customer would do it too. Nobody complained. It was just the way of things.
To me, this is the best way to explain exactly how big Hootie & The Blowfish were when I was growing up. They had their hits, but that was just a bonus. Cracked Rear View has a feeling and vibe throughout that you can’t get by just picking and choosing songs. It was best to experience it all the way through while sipping on Zimas and watching the O.J. trial with your friends.
I’m not sure when it started, really. The album was released in the summer of 1994, but many people point to the band’s appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in September as their real breakout. The album went platinum in January 1995 and then hit 12x platinum in January 1996. I think it’s safe to say that 1995 was the Year of Hootie; more than 11 million copies of Cracked Rear View sold in that year earned them that title.
If we’re looking at the biggest band at their biggest moment playing Summerfest, it’s hard to argue that Hootie & The Blowfish on July 5, 1995 isn’t the biggest show in Marcus Amphitheater history. The soundtrack of the summer, the album synonymous with the year itself, the world’s biggest music festival the day after the country’s birthday, and just one year after the album’s release—does it get bigger than that? Does it get better than that? In the summer of ’95, to quote Michelle Tanner, no way, Jose.
Not Even The Trees
Sorry’s Not Enough
Fine Line (Radney Foster cover)
I’m Goin’ Home
Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Let Her Cry
Running From An Angel
Old Man & Me
Only Wanna Be With You
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover)
Hold My Hand
Mustang Sally (Sir Mack Rice cover)
Darius and the boys withhold the four big singles until the second half of the show, but it doesn’t really matter because we know the rest just as well. They start the show with “Hannah Jane,” the same song that starts the album. The band knows you love the album, they know you know the words, and they are ready to party with you.
That same feeling comes through in the covers they spread through the night. Their renditions of Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Mustang Sally” by Sir Mack Rice have the distinct feel of a band that knows their audience. They’re trading a mix CD in real time and hitting all the right notes.
As much as I’ve tried to downplay the hits above, the hits are still the hits for a reason and stand the test of time. It’s easy to picture the capacity crowd singing every word to “Hold My Hand.” Or every Packers fan in attendance screaming “the Dolphins make me cry” during “Only Wanna Be With You.” Or the passionate kisses shared between significant others who didn’t quite grasp the meaning during “Let Her Cry.”
Hootie & The Blowfish must’ve rocked Summerfest that night like they rocked the entire year of 1995. Their fame would fade over time, and in a major way. Hootie became a punchline or a shorthand for bad ’90s music. The kind of thing dumb guys complain about getting played at the bar. It really has come to feel like something you needed to be there for, even as some people who actually were there pretend that it wasn’t actually like it was.
It was never going to last. Their songs were irony-free, hopeful, and positive. It wasn’t complex. They were the best bar band you could ask for. Their music was, as drummer Jim Sonefeld once put it, “good prom music.” That kind of thing never had a chance to last in the cynical era that was to come, but for a time and one magical night at Summerfest it was real. We let ourselves just enjoy something. We let it overtake us and just lived in it for a while.
It was good. Take me back.
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