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Hootie & the Blowfish hit Las Vegas on anniversary tour

The years have come and gone, but not the incredulity in his voice, his words freighted with two decades of disbelief.

Sometimes, dreams come true and you still feel like you’re dreaming.

Mark Bryan knows.

You can hear it when he speaks.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the guitarist has gone back in time.

For a brief moment, it’s again Feb. 28, 1996.

Tupac Shakur is onstage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, presenting the Grammy for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals.

“We need to shock the people,” he bellows. “Let’s shock the people!”

With that, out come hard rockers Kiss, back in makeup for the first time in years, a pairing as ill-matched as vomit and velour.

“These my homeboys,” Shakur says unconvincingly. “I seen just about everything now.”

The competition in the category is fierce, with TLC’s “Waterfalls,” the Rembrandts’ “Friends” theme “I’ll Be There for You” and the Eagles’ “Love Will Keep Us Alive” among the nominees.

“And the Grammy goes to … my other homeboys, Hootie & the Blowfish,” Shakur announces, the group winning for its hit ballad “Let Her Cry.”

It would be the band’s second time onstage that night, having earlier earned a trophy for best new artist.

The coronation was complete.

Hootie & the Blowfish were stars.

‘Surreal’ success

“I don’t remember it as if it really happened,” the 52-year-old Bryan recalls of the night in question. “I almost remember it as if I was watching it on TV or something. The whole thing seemed surreal.”

How could it not have?

By that point, Hootie had wrapped up the promotional and touring cycle for the band’s blockbuster 1994 debut, “Cracked Rear View,” which would become one of the top selling albums of all time, currently certified 21-times platinum.

Context is key to understanding Hootie’s success. When “Cracked Rear View” was released in the summer of 1994, the grunge boom was still in full swing. It was an era when irony, it seemed, had learned how to play guitar. Soundgarden’s moody masterpiece “Superunknown” had come out that spring, as had Nine Inch Nails’ desultory classic “The Downward Spiral.” Green Day’s “Dookie” was just starting to catalyze a punk rock boom, along with The Offspring’s “Smash,” both albums heavy on sardonic self-depreciation and outsider alienation.

Alt-rock had never been bigger, but it had also never been bleaker.

Kurt Cobain was dead.

Eddie Vedder had forgotten how to smile.

Courtney Love was just trying to “Live Through This.”

Billy Corgan was complaining about something — probably Courtney Love.

Enter Hootie & the Blowfish.

The band’s homespun, earthy sound and unabashed earnestness were the tonal and topical inverse of grunge’s scab picking and of mid-’90s punk’s high-velocity sarcasm.

They could not have stood in starker contrast to the Trent Reznors of the world.

As such, they were greeted by plenty of folks as a beam of sunshine poking through so much musical cloud coverage: Less than a year after “Cracked” dropped, Hootie & the Blowfish were fast becoming one of the biggest bands there was.

“Somewhere around the spring of ’95, it had bubbled up to the point of where it was beyond our comprehension,” Bryan says. “I literally remember being told things that were happening, and I felt like I was looking in on another band, like, ‘This can’t be us.’ Like, I’m reading about another band in Rolling Stone when it’s us.”

Over the course of four more records, Hootie would never duplicate the success of the group’s debut. Its most recent album, 2005’s “Looking for Lucky,” sold fewer than 200,000 copies.

In 2008, the band went on hiatus, with frontman Darius Rucker pursuing a solo career in country music.

‘Cracked’ comeback

But with the 25th anniversary of their debut upon them, Hootie & the Blowfish decided to mark the occasion with their first tour in more than a decade and a new album later this year.

“When we get together and play, it’s like hoppin’ on a bike,” Bryan says. “We immediately can lock in and sound like Hootie & the Blowfish. It’s really fun, because we can kind of play any song, and after we get our parts locked in, it just sounds like us, whether it’s covers or originals.

“But when it came to songwriting, we hadn’t really done that together for over decade,” he continues. “So we had to reestablish that chemistry a little bit, sit in the room with the acoustics and the piano and just kind of play each other our ideas and see where everybody’s head is at. That happened over the last year. By the time we got to January, we had over 50 songs.”

The band recorded 17 of them for its forthcoming sixth album, whose release date has yet to be set.

In the meantime, Hootie is back on the road.

Though it’s been 2½ decades since the band’s debut, Hootie remains an outlier: a guitar-based band in an era when guitar-based bands are increasingly rare on the mainstream airwaves the group once dominated.

So now it’s all about looking back and moving forward at once.

“It’s a nice combination of having this tour where we celebrate ‘Cracked Rear View’ but also have a new album on the horizon,” Bryan says. “We’re in a really good place. Hopefully that comes through in the songwriting in a way that people can relate to — just like they did 25 years ago.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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