NEW YORK — Take a jukebox filled with hits from the 1970s and early ’80s. Nothing heavy; get your Led out elsewhere. Instead, this joyous machine brims with happy, toasty, upbeat songs that evoke the best about those years of leisure suits, gas guzzlers, serpentine lines at filling stations, and eventually the giddy good-cheer of the Reagan Era. Next, extract the vinyl recordings and replace them with seven talented, buoyant musicians who play these songs as warmly and faithfully as those 45-singles themselves.
Last but not least, give this vehicle an intriguing title: Yacht Rock Revue!
These Georgians recently performed a sold-out show at Irving Plaza in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood. The venue, which I have visited many times, was as packed as I have seen it. While it would have been cozier were it less elbow-to-elbow, the crowd of devotees and some fellow newcomers remained enchanted, save for two young ladies who nearly came to blows as the evening wound down. Their narrowly averted fisticuffs aside, the abundance of yacht captains’ hats, shirts festooned with anchors and other maritime symbols, and hundreds of smiling faces all kept things cheerful.
Why yacht rock? Why not mansion rock or ski-chalet rock?
Picture 1978. “Imagine yourself aboard a yacht with your close friend Ted Turner enjoying a fine Chardonnay and fresh shrimp cocktail, savoring the smooth sounds of FM gold produced by some of the finest musicians that southern California has to offer,” YRR’s percussionist/vocalist, guitarist Peter Olson tells me. “I think you understand now.”
Here is how the band describes itself on its website:
"The Yacht Rock Revue™ is the Greatest Show on Surf and the finest tribute to ‘70s light rock ever to perform anywhere. Ever. Their spot-on renditions of Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, and the rest of the Time-Life Infomercial Catalog have enthralled fans across the United States.
"The band has won accolades ranging from Best Place to Get Drunk with Your Dad to Best Overall Music Act in Atlanta to Best Place to Start an Extramarital Affair."
YRR lived up to these superlatives, and more. Highlights included their opening tune, the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway,” King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (with powerful saxophone artistry by David B. Freeman), and Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown.”
Many tunes moved the audience to sing along. These generally young fans knew all the words to selections that probably were popular before their parents met. Of course, these numbers were from a time when songwriters actually penned lyrics, rather than whatever it is that they now attempt in vain. Steely Dan’s “Peg,” Toto’s “Africa,” Looking Glass’s “Brandy,” and especially Orleans’s “Still the One” let fans gleefully flex their vocal chords.
For their parts, the professional singers on stage did fancy work. Beyond maintaining high spirits behind their respective microphones, Olson and Nicholas Niespodzani did something both subtle and significant: Without creating Rich Little-like impersonations of the actual lead vocalists behind these songs, they inflected their voices just enough so that they sounded “just about right.”
For a superb example of how not to do this, consider the James Brown Dance Party. This group’s rotating personnel feature some of the amazing funk masters who backed the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. JDBP meticulously recreates the heavy, mesmerizing grooves that made Brown’s contribution to the arts so distinctive, compelling, and sweaty-good fun. When I first saw JBDP during New Orleans Jazz Fest in April 2015, Nigel Hall performed lead vocals, to thrilling effect. Alas, he returned to Lettuce and other live acts.
Even more alas, in slouched Elise Testone, allegedly to sing the hits that the Godfather of Soul burned onto the map. The result was like a cup of lukewarm tea beside the boiling kettle that was Brown’s trademark vocal style. When I last saw this group on New Year’s morning 2017, I patiently bore witness until Testone squeaked the opening words to “This Is a Man’s World” in a voice fit for a Campfire Girl. Equal parts startled and embarrassed for her, I wheeled around, retrieved my jacket from the coat check, and escaped Manhattan’s Gramercy Theater before things collapsed any further.
Atop the stellar musicianship of electric guitarist Mark “Monkey Boy” Dannells, bassist Greg Lee, drummer Mark Cobb, and keyboardist Mark Bencuya, YRR has a great sense of humor. While most bands routinely say “Thank you!” as their crowds applaud between songs, these guys often say, “You’re welcome.” Niespodzani sports a T-shirt that reads: “Opinions are like yachts; everybody has one.” One of the band’s biggest influences is the ‘70s super group Hall and Oates. That inspired this brilliant and hilarious T-shirt:
Meanwhile, “the Dan of Steel,” YRR’s pet name for Steely Dan, still steams on — minus the late, great Walter Becker—thanks to its unsinkable co-founder, the unparalleled Donald Fagen. Tickets also are on sale for Grateful Dead’s Bobby & Phil (Bob Weir and Phil Lesh), Steve Miller, and allegedly final shows by Paul Simon, Elton John (The Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour — very clever), and — believe it or not, the none-too-yachtsy, yet still epic Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But with so many classic-rock groups no longer around, and with so many classic songs qualifying as one-hit wonders, Yacht Rock Revue presents music fans with the rare opportunity to relish high-quality, lovingly rendered versions of songs that they otherwise would be hard pressed to hear live. And not just from one defunct act, but by dozens who should be on stage but, sadly, have gone the way of the 8-track tape. Yacht Rock Revue deserves affection, not as a traditional tribute band, but as artists who honor an entire decade.
Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News Contributor.