The Yacht Rock Revue: Nicholas Niespodziani, David B. Freeman, Mark Bencuya, Mark Dannells, Pete Olson, Mark Cobb, and Greg Lee.Photo by Ren Adkins/Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
When the unwelcome house guest named COVID came knocking on the world’s front doors in March 2020, there were hundreds of bands literally in the middle of tours who had to abruptly cancel everything, pack up and head home.
The Atlanta-based Yacht Rock Revue was on that list, though it stung a little bit more. They had just released the album Hot Dads in Tight Jeans, featuring all-original songs, and had made the Billboard charts. The cover band were the subject of a feature in Rolling Stone, and the single and video for “Step” was gaining heat.
They had planned to drop songs like “Step,” “Bad Tequila” and “The Doobie Bounce” into their setlist right alongside well known tunes of the ‘70s/‘80s. And they were three weeks into the tour when the gangplank went up and the ship was called back to port.
“It was a gamble to do an [all-original] record for sure. We had a big tour lined up and were three weeks in when things got shut down,” says lead vocalist and co-founder Nicholas Niespodziani.
“We had invested not only in the album and the recording, producer, printing, and PR, we had bought a new light system and bought a second van and a trailer and really scaled up. And to have it cut off at the knees was tough. But that also happened to everyone in our business.”
The band have kept their chops up playing socially-distanced/masked drive-in and pod shows, solo/multi-member/full band live streams for the public and corporate gigs (with some proceeds going to support the band’s road crew), and one recent full-capacity show.
Speaking from Colorado on the eve before the tour’s second shot (which comes to Houston July 16 at Warehouse Live), Niespodziani says he and the band are ready to go. “That feeling of having a packed place and having all that energy come back at you is pretty intense after going so long without it,” he says of that first “regular” gig. “Now, it’s more getting the endurance and energy. We’re getting our sea legs back.”
The Yacht Rock Revue was formed in 2007 after a group of Atlanta musicians put on a show at a local club featuring their ironic, wink-wink-nudge-nudge covers of ‘70s soft rock and Yacht Rock material. To everyone’s surprise (even the musicians), it took off and became hugely popular.
Pretty soon, it was sunny skies and smooth sailing as what started as a lark became a career that would take the group around the country, drawing tens of thousands of adoring fans who show up to concerts in Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and Captain’s hats. Lots of Captain’s hats.
“There’s not much irony to it now. But because we take ourselves seriously as musicians — even though we may not take ourselves as seriously in general,” Niespodziani says. “And when you really dig into this music, it’s incredibly well-crafted and thought out. Very detail oriented. If these songs were just three chords and boring arrangements, we would have been bored with it a long time ago.”
In a nutshell (though internet boards rage with hammering down a definition), Yacht Rock refers to songs from the mid-‘70s through the early ‘80s that feature smooth sounds, an R&B/jazz influence, catchy melodies, and lyrical themes of escape and romance full or ruined (but only slightly so).
Think Christopher Cross, Steely Dan, Michael McDonald with the Doobie Brothers and solo, Player, Ambrosia, Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Pablo Cruise, George Benson, Little River Band, Orleans, Seals & Crofts, Toto, and Rupert “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” Holmes. SiriusXM radio’s temporary Yacht Rock channel proved so popular, it’s now permanent.
Kourtney Jackson, Greg Lee, David B. Freeman, Nicholas Niespodziani, Mark Cobb, Mark Dannells, Pete Olson, Keisha Jackson, and Mark Bencuya.
Photo by Will Byington/Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
“[Listeners] are drawing on these sounds and these vibes and trying to feel good with music again. Because that’s what Yacht Rock does,” Niespodziani says. “It’s not music of anger or social anguish, it’s feed good music. And I think everyone wants to tap into that, especially now. And if that’s my job to go out there and make people happy, I’m incredibly lucky.”
While author Greg Prato in his oral history The Yacht Rock Book (which we reviewed in 2018)credits a radio DJ with coining the term for the genre in the 1980s, it really came into prominence via the inventive and hilarious Yacht Rock web video series which started streaming in 2005. The series was written, directed, and produced by J.D. Ryznar, co-produced by David Lyons and Hunter D. Stair, and edited by Lane Farnham.
Each of the 12 episodes was introduced by music journalist “Hollywood” Steve Huey, and told of the mythical adventures and relationships between real Yacht Rock musicians (all played for laughs by actors and friends of the creators). You can still view the entire series.
Bob Ruggiero and son Vincent at the 2018 Houston YRR House of Blues show.
Photo by Manny Cruz
Yacht Rock's creative team have varying opinions of Niespodziani’s group, but the most outspoken has been Ryznar. He’s gone public with his disdain for both the band “hijacking” the term (and trademarking it for live performances) and their setlist which he says includes some “Nyacht” Rock.
“With J.D. it’s tough because I think he invented this idea of Yacht Rock and made a really funny series, then he sees that we’ve made a career out of it and made money playing these songs,” Niespodziani says.
“But he wasn’t ever a musician or going to be out doing like what we do, so I feel like maybe his anger with us is a little misplaced. But I’m thankful he came up with that term, I have all the respect in the world for him, and I wish the best for him.”
Today, the band’s lineup includes Niespodziani’s childhood friend Pete Olson (vocals), Mark Bencuya (keyboards), Mark Cobb (drums), David B. Freeman (sax/flute), Mark Dannells (guitar) and Greg Lee (bass). All are crack players with some serious musicianship skills. Mother/daughter team Keisha and Kourtney Jackson provide backing vocals sometimes, and will be with the band on the current tour.
Niespodziani notes that some current alt-rock acts like Tame Impala, Thundercat, Lou Hayter, John Mayer, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra have Yacht Rock sounds in their music. And the genre was frequently sampled in ‘90s hip-hop by artists like Warren G, De La Soul, Ice Cube and the Notorious B.I.G.
The band has also gotten to meet and play with some actual Yacht Rock O.G.’s. “All the guys have been really cool to us. We played with John Oates on a cruise. He was a little skeptical at first, but when we did the song, that was out the window and he was like ‘cool.’ And we hit it off,” Niespodziani says.
“I’m super close with Robbie [“Steal Away”] Dupree. My wife and I danced to his song at our wedding. And now, he’s one of our best buds. He’s become like our mentor,” he continues. “Robbie understands what Yacht Rock is and where he fits in. Some of these guys are still living in 1982 and thinking they’re as big a star now as they were then. But Robbie has a lot of wisdom and perspective and is a real positive influence.”
The Yacht Rock Revue will be on the Hot Dads in Tight Jeans tour for most of the rest of the year. They’re also working on a documentary on the group, and in February will host a cruise/festival to Jamaica. And they’re deep into a new album that will also feature all-originals.
“We got to the point with our fans where they trusted us and were going to give us a little leeway to do our own thing. We didn’t want to stray too far afield from Yacht Rock, but we’ve heard bands that put out records that sound just like Steely Dan. But wouldn’t you just rather listen to Steely Dan?” Niespodziani sums up. “We’ll still always play those [cover] songs. But we want to take the influence of Yacht Rock, put our own stamp on it, and bring it up to date in a way that makes it feel genuine to us.”
The Yacht Rock Revue plays 8 p.m. on Friday, July 16 at Warehouse Live, 813. St. Emanuel. For information, call 713-225-5483 or visit WarehouseLive.com. $23 & 45.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.