Ten minutes before Darius Rucker took the stage at the AVA at Casino del Sol Saturday night, an owl flew from the dark onto the metal lighting apparatus above the stage front.
It fluttered a bit, then looked down at the crowd below as if to say, "Nothing to see here folks."
Then it took the short flight across the reserved seating section and joined a second owl, and then the two of them flew back to the lights. A few moments later, as the house lights dimmed, one of the owls flew to the back of the stage and perched itself on a beam.
That owl was wise, indeed. It snagged a prime seat for Rucker's Tucson country music debut in a show that included a side trip to his previous life as frontman for the 1990s alt-rockers Hootie & the Blowfish, fun covers of Blackstreet's "No Diggity" and Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places," and a special guest who led the soldout audience of around 5,000 in a short, but enthusiastic verse of "Happy Birthday" for birthday boy Rucker; he turned 51 on Saturday.
We're not sure how Charles Kelley, one third of the dynamic country superstar trio Lady Antebellum, happened to be in Tucson at the same time as Rucker. But we're assuming it was no coincidence; he came to play a round of birthday golf with Rucker, who told the Star last week he would be hitting the links before Saturday's show. And just before Rucker took the stage, Kelley posted on Facebook a picture of his sunburn against a red-topped bottle of soy sauce with the caption: "I don't know why I forget to put on sunscreen before playing golf. I'm as red as this soy sauce top."
Rucker and Kelley dueted on Lady Antebellum's chart-topper "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" and Rucker's single "Homegrown Honey," which he wrote with Kelley.
The addition of Kelley was a surprise bonus, but the real thrill of Rucker's concert was seeing him merge his two musical lives on one stage.
For longtime fans, it was no surprise that his Hootie songs fit seamlessly into his growing catalogue of country hits. With his velvety baritone and ever so subtle native Carolina accent, Rucker can't help but sound a bit country no matter what he sings. But then he added a fiddle and slowed the tempo to Hootie's "Hold My Hand" and it sounded like a natural synthesis for a song that came to define the band's general feel-good nature. And there were the Hootie songs that needed no countrified enhancing at all to slip them into a country concert: "Time" and "Let Her Cry" off Hootie's 1994 debut album "Cracked Rear View" were country back then, only we didn't let our ears hear the fiddles and the country conceits because the band was labeled "alternative rock." Silly us.
Rucker laced his solo country hits ("Alright," "Come Back Song," "If I Told You," "The Last Time," "Don't Think I Don't Think About It") between the Hootie and other covers. He sang a pretty terrific take on John Mellancamp's "Pink Houses"; don't kid yourself, that song also had some country ethos to it way back when.
By the time the AVA house lights came up 90 minutes after those owls' first flight, anyone doubting the origin of Darius Rucker's country roots had a pretty good idea just how deep they ran.
• Opening act Michael Tyler at first glance looks like an unbuffed version of Zac Effron, circa "High School Musical." But fashion is about where the similarities between Effron and the country newcomer Tyler end.
Tyler, 23, showcased a handful of self-penned songs that hint at a solid career in the making. He wrote the Dierks Bentley hit "Somewhere On A Beach" — he covered it during his 30-minute set Saturday night — and every song on his just-released debut album "317." And perhaps that intimate connection to the music was the reason he performed with the confidence and stage presence of someone whose major label career is measured in years, not months.
Highlights of Tyler's show included his current single "They Can't See," and cuts off "317" including "Good At Being Young," "Interstate" and, appropriate for Mother's Day Sunday, May 14, "Hey Mama," which he wrote about his brother calling his mom in the middle of the night to tell her he found the girl of his dreams.