Yacht Rock Revue not a fad but a phenomenon

Atlanta band finds magic in nuggets by Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins

In the fall of 2007, the Atlanta power pop trio Y-O-U was on life support. They never got their big break despite building a decent local following. The lead singer had entered law school. The bassist, a fitness instructor at an independent living facility, was pondering a move to Denver.

But the Y-O-U musicians weren’t ready to mothball their amps just yet. Inspired by a Time/Life CD infomercial, Y-O-U drummer Mark Cobb created a kitschy compilation CD he dubbed “The Dentist Office Mix” featuring 19 soft rock hits from the 1970s by the likes of Little River Band, Firefall and 10cc. He figured: why not turn that into a theme night?

Credit: MARK COBB

Credit: MARK COBB

10 High Club, a lovably grungy venue downstairs from the Dark Horse Tavern in Virginia Highland, green lit the show called yacht rock after Cobb saw a YouTube web series by that name.

For the Y-O-U musicians, Yacht Rock night was meant as a fun diversion, a one-time jam to laugh about later. They met up at Cobb’s basement with other musician friends and rotating lead singers to learn each song. “Kiss You All Over” by Exile. “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. “Still the One” by Orleans. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille. These were largely songs that had been left in the dustbin of rock history by that time, too soft and light for classic rock stations and too old for pop radio stations to play.

With tongue firmly in cheek, guitarist Mark “Monkeyboy” Dannells Photoshopped a promo poster with five of their heads superimposed on the heads of the band members for Orleans from its 1976 “Waking and Dreaming” LP. For the concert, Y-O-U lead singer Nicholas NIespodziani chose a floral shirt and plaid vest top. Monkeyboy opted for a beret, aviator sunglasses, bell bottoms and an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt. Cobb wore his grandfather’s plaid leisure suit and a wig.

Credit: RODNEY HO

Credit: RODNEY HO

Something clicked that Friday evening at 10 High for the 150 inebriated, sweaty audience members and the band members on stage. Nicole Jurovics, a former 10 High talent booker, recalled feeling both bemused and oddly taken by the show. “I knew every word to every song, and I had no idea why because I never owned any of those records,” she said.

Glen Pridgen, who sang Rupert Holmes’ cheesy 1979 hit “Escape (”The Piña Colada Song)” that night, had a blast: “Even as an outsider, I sensed something special was happening, a chemistry among the band members.”

But nobody on stage had any idea this was the genesis of what would become Yacht Rock Revue, and that 14 years later, seven of the musicians from that 10 High gig (three of whom are named Mark) would play many of those same songs in front of 6,000 cheering fans at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park.

Credit: CON

Credit: CON

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

The rise of Yacht Rock Revue

In the summer of 2008, after a second yacht rock night packed 10 High, the venue’s booker Curtis Clark offered the core musicians, including former Y-O-U members and childhood friends Niespodziani and Peter Olson, a residency every Thursday night as long as they did yacht rock. They soon became proficient at songs by Boz Scaggs, Christopher Cross and Ambrosia, drawing a surprisingly wide swath of fans.

In those early days, they saw this as a side hustle that would soon die out. And Niespodziani was clearly conflicted about the band’s growing success.

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

After performing Elton John’s “Little Jeannie” while dressed in yacht-friendly outfits at the Dunwoody Beer Festival in 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Niespodziani told the audience, “We appreciate your tepid response. Tepid is good. Too much reaction and you’ll rock the boat. And that’s bad.”

At the time, Niespodziani wasn’t a fan of a lot of the songs. The indie rock part of him felt “a little evil” making money off this type of music: “Sometimes I feel like I’m part of the problem, not the solution.

“I’m surprised how few people snicker at us,” he added in 2009. “If I weren’t in this band, I think I’d be a hater.”

For four years, Yacht Rock Revue kept the weekly 10 High gig, each member pocketing $100 a night, but their popularity led them to bigger venues, first Buckhead’s Andrews Upstairs, then the larger Park Tavern by Piedmont Park. People began asking them to perform at weddings, corporate events and private parties.

By 2011, they were all able to quit their day jobs and focus solely on Yacht Rock Revue.

Around that time, Andy Levine, founder of the Atlanta-based, music-themed cruise company Sixthman, placed the band on two of his Rock Boat cruise ships with Sister Hazel and multiple cruises with the group Train. They also jumped on cruises themed around KISS, Kid Rock and even “Star Trek.”

The exposure seeded their fan base nationwide, resulting in bookings to play shows in Denver, Boston and Indianapolis, Indiana.

Yacht Rock Revue also drew the attention of the acts they covered. Musicians from Looking Glass (”Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl”), Player (”Baby Come Back”), Orleans (”Dance With Me”) and Starbuck (”Moonlight Feels Right”) began joining them on stage for their annual Yacht Rock Revival all-star concerts at Park Tavern, the Tabernacle and Chastain.

Robbie Dupree, who had two yacht rock-friendly hits in 1980, “Steal Away” and “Hot Rod Hearts,” saw them play at the Canal Room in New York City and joined them on stage.

“They just have a great heart for the music,” said Dupree. “They dig the music. They are really responsible for making this a more legitimate category.”

Copycats have proliferated nationwide, with puns firmly attached. There’s. Yachty By Nature based in Orange County, California; New England’s Hall & Boats; Nashville’s Monsters of Yacht; the Los Angeles-based Yächtley Crew; and a female-fronted group out of Chicago called Yacht Rock-ettes.

“I call them the yachtfathers,” said Carl Nelson, lead singer of Yachty By Nature who has seen Yacht Rock Revue twice. “They got there first and are totally cool bros.”

Even with the praise from peers and fans, Olson and Niespodziani, childhood friends going back to Indiana, sought diversification, awaiting for Yacht Rock Revue to start sinking. They opened the music venue Venkman’s in the Old Fourth Ward. They started a Beatles cover band called Please PleaseRock Me. They performed theme nights covering the “Thriller” album or Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” LP. For a time, they fronted a more traditional wedding band called The Tupperware Party.

But the fan base for Yacht Rock Revue kept growing, imbibing the polyester, the cutesy choreography, the entire vibe.

Greg Prato, the author of “The Yacht Rock Book” (Jawbone Press, 2018), credits part of their success to pure musicianship, providing fans the opportunity to hear songs by artists who no longer perform or are no longer around. He specifically recalled the band’s rendition of “Baker Street,” noting that Dave Freeman’s “sax bit gives you the goosiest of goose bumps.”

In 2016, the band added two female singers, mother-daughter team Keisha and Kourtney Jackson, providing the band deeper vocal depth and the ability to do songs by the likes of Tina Turner and Captain & Tennille with more credibility. Over the years, they have played at least 600 different songs, and the setlist changes constantly.

To prove they weren’t just a pure cover band, Yacht Rock Revue recorded an original album in 2019 called “Hot Dads in Tight Jeans” and released it in early 2020. Rolling Stone magazine last year compared their new tunes to that of the respected psychedelic pop band Tame Impala.

The yacht kept on sailing ― until it hit the pandemic shoals.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

The Pandemic and the Anchorheads

In 2017, Ella Leitner, a 48-year-old Manhattan marketing executive, entered the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey, to see Yacht Rock Revue for the first time. She was super cranky. The traffic had been awful. It was raining. She and her husband were late.

But her mood lifted as soon as she heard the band’s version of Toto’s “Africa.”

“They captured our hearts,” she said. “They captured the essence of yacht rock. It was about having a good time, feeling carefree and taking away whatever was bothering you that day.”

Seeking to recapture that joyful feeling, she saw the band every time they came into town and was looking forward to celebrating her 47th birthday with them at Webster Hall a few blocks from her home in March 2020.

But there would be no concert that day. Instead, for weeks, she only heard the sad sounds of wailing sirens and the daily clanging of pots and pans to honor essential workers treating COVID-19 patients. Individual members of Yacht Rock Revue began holding livestream concerts on Facebook from their basements and seeking donations from fans. Leitner would Venmo money to the band on occasion.

She also got to know the band members as they showed off their homes, their families and their quirky interests, interacting directly with fans. Keyboardist Mark Bencuya revealed his love for alt rock and punk. Cobb did an entire livestream about 1980s TV theme songs. Olson and his wife Alyssa played duets and brought in the kids for fun.

“I was pretty transparent emotionally” on the livestreams, Niespodziani said. Viewers “could tell when I was feeling bummed or stressed and they’d send me stuff in the mail. It was so sweet.”

He received bottles of whiskey, masks with the Yacht Rock album cover on it and earnest letters from people trying to convert him to Christianity.

Leitner began corresponding with other Yacht Rock Revue lovers, and they created a fan group called the Anchorheads with their own logos and T-shirts. The private Facebook page now has more than 1,200 members.

“We were all isolated in our homes,” Leitner said. “This was a shared experience, a way for us to build an active community. The anchor was the natural symbol. It’s in their logo. The symbolism works. We are now anchored to the band.”

For more than a year, PleaseRock, the corporate entity that oversees the band and provides health insurance and a 401(K), couldn’t pay its employee salaries when touring was not an option. But financial support from the Anchorheads enabled them to maintain health insurance for everybody until they got back on the road in April.

“It speaks to the heart of who they are,” Leitner said. “They treat their staff well. They aren’t a novelty act. They’re consummate professionals.”

To honor them, Leitner and many of her fellow Anchorheads nationwide flew to Peachtree City for two nights to see them play at Frederick Brown Jr. Amphitheatre in late April.

“It was like a family reunion,” Leitner said, “family you actually want to spend time with.”

Since then, despite the uncertainties regarding the virus, Yacht Rock Revue has been able to perform dozens of shows again including two at Chastain Park, selling more than 10,000 tickets combined in August and October. They also held two shows at Venkman’s, before and after Thanksgiving, celebrating the venue’s reopening after 20 months.

Credit: RODNEY HO/rh

Credit: RODNEY HO/rh

Robin McCannon, a 51-year-old teacher from St. Simon’s Island, stood in the front during the Turkey Eve show with a look of rapt wonder on her face during the 27-song set that began with “Believe It or Not (Theme to ‘Greatest American Hero’)” and ended with “More Than a Feeling.”

“This matters,” she told Niespodziani after the show,” even more than just the music.”

“Spreading love and positive energy is what we’re about,” he said.

The seven original members are now in their 40s and 50s. Most have kids and own homes. They appreciate the steady paychecks, the ability to pursue creative side projects and the Anchorheads.

The week after the Venkman’s reopening, Niespodziani and other Yacht Rock Revue members spent a few days working with John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band on a Christmas album for 2022. They are planning another original album next year.

And in February, the band will host its first four-day yacht rock “Steal Away” extravaganza at Runaway Bay in Jamaica with Robbie Dupree and the band Ambrosia and hundreds of fans. “The Anchorheads get to hang with us at the pool and hike with us to a waterfall,” Niespodziani said.

“We started out as a pure party cover band,” he mused, “and have become respected as artists.”

Every year for the past 14 years, he has asked the same questions: “How big are we going to get? How far is this going to go?”

He smiled and shrugged his shoulders: “We still can’t really tell.”

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com


Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com


Origins of yacht rock

The Yacht Rock Revue did not invent yacht rock. In 2005, a group of friends taped a series of mockumentary video shorts for a monthly Los Angeles comedy festival called Channel 101. Scanning the liner notes of 1970s vinyl they had purchased for $1 apiece at Amoeba Music, they noticed many studio musicians in L.A. overlapped with acts such as Kenny Loggins, Toto, Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers.

This observation led to them to create a fake “origin” story and sub-genre of music they dubbed “yacht rock.”

“We had no idea this would ever go beyond the 300 people who saw it in that room,” said “Hollywood” Steve Huey, a music critic and narrator of the series.

But the 12 short episodes were loaded onto YouTube, at the time a new video content service thirsty for content. Soon, it went viral.

Music historian Chris Molanphy, on a recent episode of his podcast “Hit Parade,” said the name stuck in part because prior attempts to categorize the music such as “Revlon rock” or “Jazz rock” had failed to stick.

“Yacht rock is just so evocative,” Molanphy said. “Smooth music, relaxing, ‘70s when yachts were hot. I get it!”

The kitschy wardrobe that goes along with it is easy and accessible as well. A captain’s hat is $10, he said, and you can dig a Hawaiian shirt out of your closet. “Very thrift store friendly,” he said.

Molanphy noted that people often get into the music with an ironic wink and nod but ultimately end up just enjoying it.

Greg Prato, author of the 2018 oral history “The Yacht Rock Book,” said the genre’s enduring appeal is multi-faceted, noting the “Impeccable song craft, instrumentation and vocal harmonies that are spotlighted in most yacht rock songs. For most older music fans, it takes us back to a time that was seemingly more carefree and jolly, and it serves as the perfect soundtrack for a summertime backyard barbecue.”

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com



Concert Preview

Yacht Rock Revue Holiday Spectacular. 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18. $37.50-$203. Coca-Cola Roxy,

800 Battery Ave. SE, Atlanta. www.livenation.com