Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Yacht Rock Revue bringing the party back home

Group has defined 'yacht rock' genre by covering classics

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published August 10, 2022

Yacht Rock Revue is smooth. So much so that Rolling Stone hailed them “the world’s premier soft-rock party band” in a February 2020 feature. 

These Indiana boys have done good. “Since forming in 2008, the seasoned party band has graduated into a national touring act, packing clubs, anchoring corporate events, and setting sail on themed cruises with their note-perfect re-creations of soft-rock’s smoothest jams,” Rolling Stone reported, “from ‘Brandy’ by Looking Glass and ‘Lido Shuffle’ by Bozz Scaggs to Ace’s ‘How Long’ and Toto’s irrepressible ‘Africa.’ 

“Their crowds are far from passive, too, buying tickets in advance and showing up in boat shoes, ascots, and aviators to recite aloud the sacred texts of saints Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, and Robbie Dupree.”

That’s a pretty good description. But they take an unrestricted view of the music of their period, and are not above doing Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” or an arena anthem by Journey as an encore.

You can witness this experience yourself at Sweetwater Performance Pavilion on Thursday, Aug. 18. 

Humble beginnings

Since breaking out nationally from their adopted home in Atlanta, this band is always eager to come back and play in the Hoosier State.

Frontman Nicholas Niespodziani, singer Peter Olson, founding drummer Mark Cobb, keyboardist and singer Mark Bencuya, and saxophonist and keyboardist David Freeman all met as students at Indiana University in the late 1990s. After graduation, four of them relocated to Atlanta to get into its alternative rock scene, forming Y-O-U. 

They soon added Berklee College of Music grad Mark “Monkey Boy” Dannells, a veteran guitarist known for being able to play any style. 

But alas, Y-O-U couldn’t get any traction. They tried different side projects that featured humorous performance art, to no avail. 

By 2008, they were ready to call it quits when they stumbled onto something. In a tiny basement club in Atlanta’s Buckhead district, Y-O-U put together a tribute show called “AM Gold,” featuring Top 40 hits from the early 1970s. 

Right before their first gig, the saxophonist they hired bowed out and sent a substitute, none other than their old classmate Freeman. 

With New Orleans musician Greg Lee on bass, Yacht Rock Revue burst onto the Atlanta scene with a rapturous reception, and no one was more surprised than the band. 

Feverishly, Yacht Rock Revue brainstormed a theme and image. The term “yacht rock” was already out there, and their growing admiration for the complex songwriting and musicianship of artists like The Doobie Brothers and Kenny Loggins gave them a flag to sail under.

Some reviewers called them a “comedy troupe,” but that’s selling them short. Their concerts are full of light-hearted fun, but they would not have made it this far without stellar musicianship honoring their chosen material.

All the greats

Whatzup spoke with Niespodziani about those early days. 

“We definitely knew when we set out to do this show the first time that it was going to be a challenge,” he said. “Everybody knows that Steely Dan is really hard to play, right? What we learned is that level of studio precision is something that we are not only capable of, but thrive in that environment, which is not something that I expected. 

“When I was in an indie rock band, I thought that performing was all about emotion, and it didn’t really matter if your guitar was in tune or if you were playing the notes exactly right, as long as you pushed the energy on stage. I think that the energy component is still really important with Yacht Rock, but the accuracy is important, too. And the discipline and consistency of approach has been something that at least I’ve learned.” 

Soon, they attracted the rock stars from the ’70s and ’80s themselves, who have joined them on stage in their festivals, called Yacht Rock Revivals. They have performed with names like Gary Wright, Bobby Kimball (Toto), Bill Champlin (Chicago), Al Stewart, Robby Dupree, Peter Beckett (Player), Matthew Wilder, and more. 

The band actually trademarked the term “yacht rock” for live performances and famously sent a cease-and-desist letter to Cross to keep him from using the term to promote his own tour.

Party for all ages

Yacht Rock Revue built their own upscale supper club, called Venkman’s, in downtown Atlanta. They have a business, PleaseRock, promoting other tribute bands to fill in regional gigs they’ve gotten too big to play themselves. They struck business deals with Live Nation and Sirius XM Radio, widening their exposure. But their original album, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans, was released right before pandemic lockdowns, landing in limbo. 

Now they are picking up where they left off. 

This spring they hosted a four-day festival at a Jamaican resort. Since then, “We’ve been playing the biggest places we’ve ever played and selling the most tickets we’ve ever sold,” Niespodziani said. “We were within a couple hundred of selling out Pier 17 in Manhattan, and then we sold out the Stone Pony Summer Stage on the Jersey Shore. We have pulled crowds of 4,000 to 5,000 people in Boston and D.C. We are playing the House of Blues in Vegas right before we come to Fort Wayne.”

Their ambitions are even bigger than yacht rock. 

Later this year, on a few dates they will perform Prince’s album Purple Rain in its entirety, and on another show the songs from Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. They were renowned years back for Halloween shows, performing Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and have done a Beatles tribute, with songs by the band and its four members’ solo careers.

Maybe the most distinctive thing about the band is their audience: all ages of adults, from the youngest hard-partiers to people who grew up with the Beatles back in the day. Atlanta Magazine christened their show “Best Place to Get Drunk with Your Dad.”

“I think there’s a universal aspect,” Niespodziani said. “The good-times-havingness of this music cuts across generations, and it makes it fun for everybody.” 

On the Sweetwater Performance Pavilion stage, you’ll hear the band, with new drummer Jason Nackers and mother-daughter singers Keisha and Kourtney Jackson, performing all the greats, including tunes by Hall & Oates, Rupert Holmes, Gerry Rafferty, George Benson, and the one song they can’t escape, Toto’s “Africa.” 

They’ll drop smooth jams from Hot Dads in Tight Jeans, bringing the ’70s up to the 2020s, before they sail off into the next sunset, keeping it smooth.

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