- Matthew Thorsen
- The Full Cleveland
Seated at the picnic tables outside Winooski's Monkey House, three members of the Full Cleveland shivered a little as they gabbed over beers with Seven Days. It was warm enough in late October to sit outside, but just barely. The imminent winter doesn't daunt these musicians, though. Their world is warmed by a gentle ocean breeze and flavored with a kiss of tequila and pineapple. Their world is a smooth world.
So far as the members of the group know, the Full Cleveland are Vermont's only "yacht rock" band, and they are fully committed to a soft-rockin' lifestyle of 1970s leisure. On the surface, that commitment entails wearing tacky nautical attire and maintaining a gentle sense of self-irony. But, though their set lists are rich in the kind of soft-rock chestnuts that may inspire derision, the Clevelanders are skilled musicians who can appreciate a catchy hook and also nail a complex arrangement.
Local interest in the band is picking up. Guitarist Ean Briere reports that it's received three offers for New Year's Eve gigs. The show at the Monkey House was part of a monthlong Tuesday-night residency. At Waterbury's Reservoir Restaurant & Tap Room, the band's unofficial home base, the Full Cleveland play on the last Saturday of every month. They've also paid their dues in most of the major venues in or near Chittenden County: Nectar's, Club Metronome, Red Square, the Rusty Nail.
"And we were the last band to play at [Winooski's recently shuttered] O'Brien's Pub," said singer Matt Wright with a laugh. "We're very proud of that."
The Full Cleveland's repertoire is not limited to the songs of a single act but to those of a loosely defined genre. Also known as easy listening, adult contemporary and "AM Gold," this once-reviled, now-beloved musical form dominated the airwaves from the early '70s to the mid-'80s. Characterized by slick production, gentle pop hooks and unexpected complexity, the music's major figures include Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers, the Little River Band, Christopher Cross, and such one-hit wonders as Looking Glass, Exile and Player.
"We're looking at '72 to '85," said Wright, holding up his hands like brackets to demarcate his band's preferred musical epoch. "We start with early Steely Dan in '72 ... and get all the way to Huey Lewis."
Why play nothing but yacht rock, though? More than most other genres, this one veers dangerously close to goofy nostalgia and cheesiness.
"It is goofy, but as long as we kill the music, then I don't care who thinks it's goofy," said bassist John Wakefield. But yacht rock offers more than just an opportunity to pull on your uncle's old Orlon slacks. For musicians, the genre offers the opportunity to master tunes that are not just pleasing to the ear but, often, diabolically difficult to play.
"The hooks you can remember and whistle and hum in the shower, but when you break it down ... it's just layered complexity," said Briere. "It also has a variety in chords that I just don't hear in Katy Perry or the 'Call Me Maybe' tunes. There are diminished seventh chords, with a B-flat over an A-flat. Being able to play that is very fulfilling."
Though born of 1970s musical trends, this curious genre acquired the moniker "yacht rock" only a decade ago, when a popular and wildly funny internet series of that name attained meme-dom. That series inspired the look, playlist and sensibilities of the Full Cleveland. Its caricatured characters — including McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Daryl Hall and John Oates — rest at nothing in their dogged pursuit of the ultimate in musical smoothness.
"[The show's creators] are not making fun of the music," said Briere. "They're really just making fun of the characters ... or of the situation: the facial hair, the end of the '70s, kung fu, fondue, chardonnay."
Inspired by the series and by his own genuine love for the music, Wakefield posted a craigslist ad for smoothly inclined bandmates about three and a half years ago. He admits that he was attempting to tap into what he perceived as a burgeoning yacht-rock zeitgeist. "We're not the first band doing this around the country," he said, smiling.
Briere was the first to respond to the ad. Several other members — including Jamie Levis on keyboards and percussion and Charlie MacFadyen on keyboards and vocals — soon climbed aboard, with Wright joining as "captain of the ship" in February 2013. MacFadyen's son Brian recently took over as drummer.
Don't expect a Full Cleveland album anytime soon; the cost of securing the recording rights to the songs in their repertoire would quickly scuttle this ship. For now, local music heads in search of Vermont-grown smoothness can experience it only at the band's shows.
That situation highlights a curious irony. The arrangements of some of the original AM Gold songs are so complex that their makers were unable to replicate them in concert. The quintessential example is Steely Dan, a band that ceased touring for this reason shortly after the release of its third album. To hear yacht rock performed live, then, is something of an anomaly.
If that irony occurred to anyone other than music-obsessed journalists, it wasn't apparent at the first show in the Full Cleveland's Monkey House residency. Puzzled at first by the band's shtick, the crowd soon found itself unable to resist grooving to the sounds of smoothness.
Starting with the Climax Blues Band's irresistible 1976 nugget "Couldn't Get It Right," the band then laid down Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown" and America's 1982 comeback hit "You Can Do Magic." Like a really good chocolate-chip cookie, the remainder of the first set was studded with succulent morsels, such as "How Long" by Ace, Christopher Cross' "Sailing" ("probably the yachtiest tune we have," said Briere) and an especially twinkly version of "Moonlight Feels Right" by one-hit wonder Starbuck.
Seven Days, tired from drink and overpowered by the sheer smoothness of it all, had to bow out before set two, which was reported afterward as rich in Steely Dan.
The members of the Full Cleveland know their songs may have a high cheese quotient, but that's hardly a drawback. As Wright put it, "[Player's] 'Baby Come Back' — you know, it's a Swiffer commercial now. But at the same time, hey, it's a great song. What a great piece of music."
OK, but what about that weird band name? Are there other Clevelands that are somehow less than complete?
"Everyone thinks it's a dirty sex move — that's part of the fun," said Briere.
Actually, he continued, the name comes from an obscure tune by yacht rockers Starbuck. The term refers to a leisure suit with matching hat, belt and shoes. "If you own a gas station in Akron and you're taking your wife out for the night, and if you went to the Arthur Murray Dance School, you throw on the full Cleveland and take her out," said Briere.
And if that ain't smooth, nothing is.