By Colleen Goodhue
After toughing it out through my first miserably cold winter in Vermont, the first really fun thing I did was attend a yacht rock concert in the empty lot behind Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier. I didn’t know the band or what the “yacht rock” genre was, but I was there for another reason: Montbeerlier 2016. But then a seven-piece band came on stage with two keyboardists and a soprano saxophone, all wearing polyester suits—the singer dressed like the Skipper from Gilligan’s island—and I knew the lyrics to every single song they played. After a long season of wet boots and winter tires, it felt so damn good to sing and dance outside and drink hazy New England IPAs. I quickly became a fan of The Full Cleveland, “Vermont's Smoothest Yacht Rock.”
Yacht rock was a term officially coined in 2005 by a web series of the same name. It attempts to define a genre of music from the 1970s and '80s that might live in other categories—AM gold, easy listening, soft rock—but has a certain… yachty quality to it. They’re tracks by Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, the Doobie Brothers, Lionel Ritchie, and many others—breezy, a little boozy, soulful, fun, and always smooth. Hearing a yacht rock song on its own is good, but back-to-back the songs weave together to create a warm, golden blanket of good feeling.
The Full Cleveland usually plays around the Burlington/Stowe/Montpelier area, so I was excited to see they had an upcoming virtual performance I could catch on Friday, October 23rd. They’ll be livestreaming Yachtoberfest, their in-person performance at The Double E (capped at about 10% capacity) in Essex Junction; I plan on projecting the stream on the wall and dancing along in my living room. I met with the band virtually to talk about their upcoming show, what makes yacht rock so fun to play, and their impeccable fashion sense.
Colleen Goodhue: First of all, what is it like being a yacht rock band in a landlocked state?
Jamie Levis (vocals/keys): Surreal!
John Wakefield (bass): Back in 2012, I had a friend who went to a wedding down in Virginia and had seen a wedding band called Three Sheets to the Wind. I hadn't heard of yacht rock. He told me that the band was just incredible; the old people loved it, the young people loved it. I had been doing some other music projects that were fun, but I was looking to start something new.
To be honest, I didn't think I would ever find people talented enough that would buy into it. The music's really difficult. Everybody that's in the lineup is just first class. So, you know, we're really doing a number on all these songs so it's a lot of fun.
Colleen: The other day I was helping a friend paint his new house. and we put on the Spotify “Yacht Rock” playlist. As we listened throughout the day we evaluated each song. “That’s definitely a yacht rock song.” “That’s not a yacht rock song.” “That’s just a song for people who also like yacht rock.” et cetera. So I’m curious, what are your parameters for deciding?
John: It's an eight year old question that probably will never be answered. There are the guys that came up with “yacht rock.” They do their own podcast and they review songs on the yachtski scale. You could probably lean on that scale, but at the same time, something may sound really yachty, but be kind of obscure, and it's tough to get people involved in that more obscure stuff. So you have to rely on what fits the bill for the time period and the fashion sense.
Jamie: I would reiterate what John said because I grew up in that era and certainly I never heard it called that until I read John's ad on Craigslist eight years ago. It certainly seems to be a bit of a moving target.
Paul Ruderman (keys/vocals): There are these so-called authorities. We don't always agree with them. But we all ended up in this band because we really like whatever the core of yacht rock is, the style of music. We feel pretty comfortable trusting our own instincts: if we all think it's a good song, it fits in, and if we think the crowd will like it.
Colleen: What are your favorite songs to play live, either individually or as a band? Something you just totally jam on.
John: Me personally, I think we've really been really nailing “Hold the Line” by Toto lately, which isn't as soft as some of the other yacht rock hits but what a fun tune and just a ton of fun to play. That would be that would be mine recently.
Jamie: “What a Fool Believes” would be mine.
Bob Defeo (drums): Me too. Any of the Doobie Brothers stuff that we do is really good. And Steely Dan!
Justin Sawyer (guitar/vocals): “Lonely Boy” is another one.
John: We added that one recently. I think it was more fun than we expected.
Colleen: What is it about this music that makes it difficult to play and especially to perform live?
Jamie: Certainly from a vocal standpoint, I mean you're trying to emulate one iconic vocalist after another —Daryl Hall, Michael McDonald, Donald Fagan, Paul Carrack from Ace, and on and on. Singing the lead vocals is just an enormous amount of fun and a huge challenge. Then you throw the harmonies on top of that… but when you nail those, they just shimmer.
Justin: It's a lot harder than I expected. There's so much orchestration and there's just a lot going on and you have to get it exactly right, or it doesn't sound right.
Jamie: We do play with the form, sometimes. It's not always exactly according to Hoyle, the version that you might have heard on the radio, but it's intentional when we do it. We'll put another section in or will change up the ending, or will pull things. We're not treating the music as a museum piece if you will. We want to let it breathe and grow, too.
Paul: People know the studio recordings where they just slowly fade out and so we've come up with endings and have our own liberties, or let our instrumentalists solo a little bit.
Colleen: Right, you don't just get quieter and quieter.
Jamie: No, we get louder and louder.
Colleen: What is your individual connection to the music? What appeals to you about it?
Justin: Good songs and good songwriting is timeless. When you play music for people that don't necessarily know some of the songs, but you can see the emotional response and watch them get really into it... I feel like this music just transcends the time that it came out in and there's a whole new generation of people that are getting into yacht rock and it's really coming back. And the music's fun to play.
Jamie: I was a teenager in the mid '70s and and into the '80s and it was not a guilty pleasure. Definitely not. It seemed like what people were listening to was a lot more eclectic then. You could be listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and the Doobie Brothers. And I was. The songs are incredible—the structures, the complexity. To try to manifest it as well as we can is really just such a blast. When it works, it's remarkable. I've played in other bands as well, but there is something about this music that just really, you know, really gets under your skin.
Paul: I remember it being in the car putting on my mom’s wheezy AM radio driving around. I've been a piano player since I was a kid and interested in music that works well for piano; some rock does and some rock doesn't. A hallmark of yacht rock is there's a lot of piano or electric piano in it. So it's always been a sort of music that I can relate to.
Bob: I've always been like a soul, R&B kinda guy and I didn't really know the term yacht rock either until I saw the ad and I met with Paul and he showed me the song list and I was like, “I know all these! Yes. These are the best songs ever!” Even when the people don't particularly know the songs, but they can see the smile on our faces and know how into what we are, you have no choice but to be like, “Oh, these guys look like they're having the best time. So we're gonna have a good time, too.” That bodes well with this style of music. You can't not tap your foot to it or try to sing some of the chorus lines. You can't not.
Colleen: I am super excited about this show because it’s my and my partner’s 12-year anniversary and we love you guys, so I wanted your opinion on what's the most romantic song in your repertoire?
John: Ohh, what about “On and On”? [by Stephen Bishop]
Paul: Oh! “The Pina Colada Song.”
Colleen: They drift apart, but they get back together!
Justin: “Sara Smile.” I would probably have to say.
Jamie: That's good. Yeah, it's right up there.
Colleen: Can you talk a little about your fashion sense? You guys have the most amazing clothing: polyester suits, big collars, flashy patterns, and a bit of a nautical theme.
Paul: I think John has to answer this one!
John: The name of the band alone stems from a Starbuck song called “The Full Cleveland.” We were fans of “Moonlight Feels Right,” and so we’re digging deep in the Starbuck bin and we saw that song. It’s a fashion term from the late '70s, which is a leisure suit, with an accompanying belt and white patent leather shoes. That's technically what's known as the Full Cleveland. Not everybody, classically the drummers, have participated. We let it slide because drumming's not easy and it’s all in good fun, but I shop quite a bit on the eBay vintage section. You can find some rare gems there.
Justin: It's a lot of fun looking for the clothing and the outfits. I think it's important when you're doing something like this to dress the part. You want to have fun and project that fun to your audience and what better way to do that than to have that look for the era you’re playing? The big collar and all that.
Colleen: You guys getting ready for next weekend?
John: We had a great rehearsal Tuesday night and are just making sure that everything's super tight. We have Chris Peterman, he’s a great saxophone player in Vermont, we consider him one of the best and he's gonna be able to play with us. We should be good to go. Everything sounded great. We're all really excited for it.
Colleen: What do you anticipate Yachtoberfest will be like with a hybrid live/streaming format?
John: The Double E is doing it really safely; only allowing 60 people out of a 500 capacity venue. They've figured out a way to get people to their seats one at a time. They upgraded HVAC and stuff like that. It’s nice to be able to have a handful of people there. It’s hard to play to an empty room. We had been worrying about that and discussing that all summer. So I think this is a really good way for us to have some kind of participation, especially from some close friends and family to support us there and that'll help keep the flow going for the show, for the video.
Paul: Everything we've seen what the Double E has done in terms of their streaming, their cameras, the tech and lighting all looks really terrific.
John: Just when the pandemic started, we had to cancel a gig at the Monkey House and that's one of our favorites in Winooski. We do love all the venues that we get to play. The venues are in a tough spot. They all treated us really well over the years; the Monkey House, Foam, the Reservoir, Nectar... so many great places have hosted us and been so generous. So anything that we can do to help them out in this tough time. If everybody could just think of venues and if you can order food from them or participate in any kind of event they have, it means a lot right now.
The Full Cleveland will perform a hybrid in-person/virtual show called Yachtoberfest on Friday, October 23rd at 8:00PM. Tickets are available for the livestream.
This interview was edited for clarity and context.
Colleen Goodhue is a videomaker and writer living in West Lebanon, NH. She loves archives, long layovers, and all kinds of friendly competition. She performs with Valley Improv, the Upper Valley’s best and only improv troupe.