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The Raw Power of Really Smooth Music

Climb aboard the Yacht Rock revolution at this week's Michael McDonald/Steely Dan show

For the entire run of its just-ended, one-year voyage, the Internet comedy series Yacht Rock charted a Chardonnay-soaked course through American song's silkiest, most velvety waters. Those would be the late-'70s, early-'80s light rock scene in L.A. that, as host "Hollywood" Steve Huey put it, "docked a remarkable fleet of hits" by Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Toto, Steely Dan and the Eagles. (You can view the series in its entirety at www.channel101.com/shows/show.php?show_id=152, and we strongly advise that you do, at least if you want this article to make any sense at all. And if you want your life to improve a thousandfold.)

From the 100 percent false but utterly hilarious show, we learned that Christopher Geppert was reborn as Christopher Cross the very instant fictional svengali Koko Goldstein passed away, run through the guts with his own lucky harpoon on "the day Yacht Rock lost its innocence."

We learned from Kenny Loggins (played by series co-creator Hunter Stair) that "When a friend is drowning in a sea of sadness, you don't just toss a life vest to him. You swim one over to him." (Or maybe not: As Michael McDonald [played by J.D. Ryznar, another of the show's creators] put it, "That's what a fool believes, Kenny!")

And as the villainous John Oates (Drew Hancock) intoned from under his enormous afro, "the raw power of really smooth music" was very much something to be respected and admired.

McDonald and Steely Dan are both at the Woodlands Pavilion this week, and Racket had a chance to talk to McDonald about the comedy.

"It's hilarious," the keeper of the smooth music flame says over the phone from a vacation in east Tennessee. (Fittingly, he's on a lake.) "I sent it to my [18-year-old] son the minute I saw it, and he only got more of a laugh out of it than I did. It's funny how some things can be so dumb and so ingenious at the same time."

And as hard as it may be for people in their thirties and forties to believe, yacht rock music is a hot youth subculture in certain hipster-ridden cities. The creators of Yacht Rock the show had a pretty tight focus in mind -- to them, the only true yacht rock music was made in L.A. by the Doobie Brothers/McDonald, Loggins, Cross, Hall and Oates, Steely Dan, the Eagles, Toto and a few others, all of whom actually collaborated in real life.

But yacht rock the newly christened genre knows no such bounds -- there's a slip for it on the dock as long as it's got that smooth, heavily produced sheen and jazzy/R&B-inflected groove and comes from the Carter or early Reagan eras. Acts like Ambrosia, Seals and Crofts, Bread, 10cc, Player, Wings and the Little River Band all qualify, and twentysomethings have weighed anchor and are again adrift in the balmy breezes and gentle trade winds of songs like "Sailing," "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)," "Reminiscing," "That's How Much I Feel," "Summer Breeze," "Baby Come Back," "Steal Away" and "This Is It." (Even if some of the bands are British, this music has a Pacific Coast vibe, so Jimmy Buffet is not a yacht rocker by this definition -- we see him as more as the king of the Southern yacht rockers, just as Billy Joel reigns over the East Coast variety.)

London, Chicago, Brooklyn and San Francisco all now sport yacht rock DJ nights. Houston is both behind and ahead of the curve, or more accurately, we're ahead because we're so far behind. Yacht rock-friendly local stations Sunny 99.1 and The Wave are both top ten in Houston, so it's not like these songs have gone away here, the way they have in more trendy places. You soak 'em up ambiently, at work or while you're shopping, the same way you soak up the mainstream country charts in Nashville whether you have any country stations on your radio presets or not. Houston's a smooth-music hub -- H-Town is Smoothtown. Perhaps that's why there are no yacht rock DJ nights here (at least that I know of) -- why go out to hear the same music you hear all day?

But there are a few fans of the show and the series here. One such is 27-year-old April Brem, whom I found on MySpace via Google. Like many Yacht Rock fans, she favors punk rock and indie stuff -- Guided By Voices, Flaming Lips and David Byrne are the first three bands listed on her MySpace page, and the list also includes Jandek, Xiu Xiu, and TV on the Radio. But what you hear when you click over there is not from any of those catalogs. Nope, you hear Michael McDonald crooning "What a Fool Believes."

"You grow up listening to what your parents listen to, and that definitely sinks in," she says. "My dad especially was into that stuff for a while, but eventually he left it all behind and started listening to Joe Cocker and Kenny Rogers. But I always liked Christopher Cross, Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. The Doobie Brothers were actually always my favorite."

And if you root around through the friends of Yacht Rock on the show's fan page on MySpace (www.myspace.com/yacht_rock), you'll find that most of the people on there are into Pitchfork-endorsed bands like those on Brem's list. And until the show came along, few would uncloset their jones for the Doobies, even ironically. (And it seems that the love for yacht rock goes past that.)

After all, that stuff's for Sunny listeners, right? Hell, yacht rock has been derided by critics, record store clerks and other bastions of the hipster elite for 30 years. From the advent of the Clash, the Ramones, and Elvis Costello, if you were white and wanted to score any cool points, you had to be into music that was jagged and spastic, not smooth and silky.

It's a cliche now -- "angular" music is supposed to be where it's at. You know -- Devo, Wire, XTC, Gang of Four, Talking Heads in the old guard, and then Pavement and all their imitators later. Virtually all American and British indie rock is bony, wiry music, often with numerous time signature changes and obtuse lyrics. It makes demands rather than delivers invitations. This is the stuff you are supposed to be jamming if you want to be with the times.

Yacht rock is none of those things. The music is full-bodied, cool and mellow as a frosty mug of Lowenbrau, yet somehow light and airy as a glass of rosé wine.

And it's that rarest of white music forms -- one that is embraced across the color line. Among black audiences, McDonald ranks just ahead of Lisa Stansfield, the Average White Band and Jon B. and just behind Teena Marie as the most popular white R&B artist ever.

"I've always felt fortunate, back as far as the Doobies, that we've always been embraced by black radio," McDonald says. "In fact, as a solo artist, had it not been for black radio, you would never have heard of me. My first couple of singles -- 'Keep Forgettin'' and 'Sweet Freedom,' which wound up being top ten contemporary hit radio records -- they started out on R&B radio. It was because we got such a push from black radio that we even got on mainstream formats."

Other yacht rockers have had an influence on black music as well, far greater ones than any of the buzzed-about angular bands have had. Hall and Oates's "I Can't Go for That" was a number one R&B hit, and that song, along with Steely Dan's "Peg," were both sampled by De La Soul on the rap trio's earth-shatteringly groundbreaking album Three Feet High and Rising. (Steely Dan has also been sampled by Ice Cube, MF Doom, and Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz.)

Local rap genius Devin the Dude is a major fan of yacht rock music, though he calls it by another name. When I interviewed him last year, he said that he grew up partly on a diet of Ambrosia, the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles, Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney/Wings -- albums he fished out of a nearby radio station's dumpster. "Casey Kasem–type tracks," he called 'em -- and there's even a James Taylor sample on To Tha X-Treme.

So you can call this music bland and overproduced if you see it that way, but to call it "painfully white" is just plain wrong. As for us, we think this stuff's got soul -- maybe not much funk or grit, but soul nonetheless. And hell, with Iran and North Korea swinging their nuclear dicks, American soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israelis and Palestinians at each other's throats and an ongoing crime wave in the streets of Houston, these days we'd rather be soothed by the smooth sounds of yacht rock than the herky-jerky strains of Tapes N' Tapes or some such.

And evidently I am not alone. Anchors aweigh!

Michael McDonald and Steely Dan perform Friday, July 14, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2025 Lake Robbins Drive. Call 713-629-3700 for more info.

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