"One more song! One more song!" The five members of Mellow Yellow wait patiently just offstage at the conclusion of their set as the familiar encore call builds from the crowd. When they finally reemerge, the place erupts.
There's keyboardist Brad DaddyO. A leopard-print shirt ripples on his wiry frame; a dark, tilted fedora sets off his narrow sunglasses. There's Kenny Diggit. The lanky lead guitarist sports a trippy, tie-dyed T-shirt that somehow both clashes with and complements the multicolored kufi on his head. Apollonius "Flip" Funk saunters to his post stage right with that stoic cool that only bass players seem to pull off. Drummer Franco Sunshine slips behind his kit, stone-faced and mod in dark jeans and a plain white T-shirt.
Last out is vocalist and guitarist Dusty Love. She's slinging a pink Telecaster with paisley swirls. Her tangerine boots gleam like the smile on her flushed face.
The singer's high-wattage smile never dims as the band tears through the trio of songs that close the Beatles' Abbey Road: "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight" and "The End." Jubilant fans sway and sing along on a lively dance floor, including a sizable contingent wearing bright, canary-yellow Mellow Yellow tees.
The whole scene — singing jesters, dancers in the aisles — feels like part of Bad Company's "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy." Because, in many ways, fantasy is exactly what this is.
Despite the convincing vintage garb and psychedelic sounds, Mellow Yellow's impeccable renditions of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Strawberry Alarm Clock aren't filling up speakers at the Fillmore in San Francisco or NYC's Café au Go Go in 1969. The band is playing on a temporary stage in the atrium of the Norwegian Pearl, a 965-foot Jewel Class cruise ship operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines.
At the moment, the Pearl is bobbing around the Caribbean en route to the Bahamas from Miami. She is hosting the Lebrewski Cruise, a four-day floating music and craft-beer festival clumsily themed around the movie The Big Lebowski. Unlike many of the other bands on the ship, such as Molly Hatchet and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mellow Yellow are not relics transplanted to the Caribbean from rock's graying glory days. Rather, they're a 1960s and '70s tribute act whisked to the tropics from present-day Vermont.
Brad DaddyO is really David Cooper, a Burlington recording engineer and the manager of the local African refugee hip-hop act A2VT. Kenny Diggit is Ken French, a recording engineer and video producer from Charlotte. Flip Funk is Brad Sourdiffe, who co-owns Shelburne's Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery with his wife, Joan Furchgott. Franco Sunshine is Frank Zammiello, a motorcycle and moped mechanic in Burlington. Dusty Love is Linda Bassick, who teaches early-childhood music classes, also in Burlington.
Though all are well-regarded musicians in Vermont, as Mellow Yellow they don't have nearly the hometown following that this excited crowd might suggest. But their Caribbean celebrity isn't a mirage. On a cruise ship, buying into the illusion is as much a part of the deal as overpriced drink packages.
Like nearly everything else on this boat — all 15 towering decks of it — the two-story atrium is designed to convey a sense of relaxed luxury. Brass handrails curve along a glass-walled balcony and the wide split staircase that descends from it. Courteous staffers in smart vests and bow ties tend a crowded bar near the stage in an attentive yet unhurried fashion. The bar's rich mahogany tone matches the dark wood paneling that lines the atrium. Guests not tuned in to the show — perhaps overcooked from a day in the unforgiving tropical sun — lounge on plush chaises in dimly lit nooks.
At first glance, the whole scene is elegant and chic. But, as with a knockoff Gucci handbag, the opulence fades the closer you look.
Near the glass double doors to the outdoor deck, a duty-free counter offers perfume, watches and cartons of Marlboros on the cheap. The carpet has a nauseating pattern of swirling browns and teals. Thirty feet above it, a strange, sprawling chandelier casts an electric-blue hue from a spiky series of stalactites that call to mind Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Most of those dapper bartenders are serving premixed piña coladas and aluminum bottles of Michelob ULTRA and Bud Light Lime.
Beneath her glitzy sheen, the Pearl feels garish and phony. But what is real is this: On this ship, Mellow Yellow are rock stars.
Mellow Yellow have been playing cruises in the Caribbean every winter, typically for a week or two, since they were invited to join the annual Moody Blues cruise in 2013. In that time, the band has developed a strong following among cruisers. To wit: Among the aforementioned group of fans sporting "I'm Cruising With Mellow Yellow" tees, only two are from Vermont, and they're related to band members.
The rest hail from points all over the country. They include a middle-aged couple from California who saw Mellow Yellow a week earlier on the Moody cruise and elected to stay on the Pearl another week — in part, they say, because Norwegian offered deep discounts for the light-selling Lebrewski Cruise. But the fact that Mellow Yellow would be staying on to play sealed the deal, because, as the Californians tell me, "You just can't hear this music played live anywhere else."
"We play in Burlington, and nobody knows who the hell we are," says Cooper. "But here, we're rock stars."
"It's really true," says Bassick. "We come down here, and it's a different world."
The day after the band's atrium performance, Mellow Yellow are seated at a shaded table in the Great Outdoors, an outdoor bar and buffet at the aft of the ship. They sip coffee and eat ice cream cones from a self-serve dispenser nearby, while Bassick relates a story from the previous week's Moody cruise.
The band was playing the main stage on the ship's pool deck — a massive pro rig that would be the envy of many outdoor music festivals. Mellow Yellow played for three straight hours to a crowd that jammed every inch of the spacious two-level deck.
"They simply would not let us off the stage," says Bassick, grinning in disbelief. "They just kept cheering and cheering, so we kept playing and playing."
Individually, the members of Mellow Yellow have had modest degrees of musical success. Cooper is a New York City transplant and Berklee College of Music grad. His old NYC band, 46bliss, placed songs on several network TV shows, including "CSI: NY" and "Veronica Mars." Bassick is a Burlington scene vet, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who is currently best known as a member of the all-girl rocksteady band Steady Betty.
French is a member of two other well-regarded local tribute bands: Santana acolytes Abraxas and Neil Young tribute act Ragged Glory. Besides having considerable bass chops, Sourdiffe is a classically trained violinist and a jazz mandolinist. Zammiello was the drummer for the popular 2000s BTV band the Jazz Guys, is a member of Blue Button and has participated in other projects over the years.
Mellow Yellow range in age from early forties to late fifties. Collectively, they have several lifetimes of musical experience. And they are meticulous when it comes to re-creating the music of the late 1960s and early '70s. The players work strictly from the definitive album versions of songs — more than 100 in all — even intentionally reproducing mistakes that were left in the original recordings.
That attention to detail endears Mellow Yellow to cruise crowds. By contrast, the band's upcoming Vermont gig schedule includes only a smattering of summer dates — a couple of small-town outdoor concerts, a reunion.
On the high seas, Mellow Yellow have stumbled into a natural, if somewhat strange, niche. They're paid handsomely. They get the full rock-star treatment, including complimentary booze, paid travel expenses and airy staterooms with balconies. (The last are a far cry from the cramped, windowless inside cabin afforded a certain music journalist.)
And the members of Mellow Yellow get to mingle with some of their heroes, including the Moody Blues, the Zombies and the Strawbs — all key figures of the era the band dutifully honors. In a very real way, if only for a week or two each year, they get to live the rock-and-roll fantasy.
In a few days, Mellow Yellow will pack up and fly home to Vermont, back to real life and relative obscurity. But at the moment, as they gaze at the rolling sea through dark shades, with a warm Caribbean breeze flowing across the deck, the Green Mountain State feels a world away.
"What was it in Burlington today?" asks Bassick, smirking. "Nineteen degrees?"