What’s Pittsburgh’s favorite music? Judging by our top two radio stations: old music.
Take a look at a recent playlist from 3WS, Pittsburgh’s most popular station. Over the course of a day, the most recent song played was “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt (1996). The number two station, warhorse WDVE, has updated its playlist to include 1995’s “Santa Monica” by Everclear.
Any number of arguments can follow from this: New music sucks (popular but specious); it’s hard to find new music (circular); and oldies just make us feel good (undeniable).
Everyone loves music that brings back good memories and songs that we can sing along to. It’s one reason why cover bands, which play the hits of a bygone era, do good business around here.
Dancing Queen and the M80s have the ‘70s and ‘80s covered. Smells Like The 90s and My So-Called 90s Band handle our Nirvana needs. Let’s Groove Tonight is a tribute band paying homage to Earth, Wind & Fire.
There are also a couple of interesting outliers in town that you need to know: One band celebrates a genre within an era and the other plays their own kind of honky-tonk.
Yacht Rocket plays yacht rock, a term that may be hard to define. Wikipedia has a very long and detailed entry on it: soft rock from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that has a little bounce and funk. Think Toto, Christopher Cross — and the four-star admiral of yacht rock, Michael McDonald.
“It’s fussy, complex music, made by a lot of session guys in L.A.,” says Jacob Pleakis, who sings and plays keyboards for Yacht Rocket. “It’s nakedly commercial.”
Brandon Lehman — guitarist, singer and co-founder along with Pleakis — and bassist Anton DeFade, says it can be a challenge, citing the guitar solo from Steely Dan’s “Peg.” (Wikipedia notes that Steely Dan went through eight guitarists before Jay Graydon nailed it.) But Lehman has it down.
“We all like delivering a song people know well,” Lehman says. “We want to respect the music.”
All 10 members of Yacht Rocket are professional musicians who have played together in various combinations. Lehman’s agency, Half Step Collective, books many of them for club shows and private events.
“Years ago, we’d be done with a wedding or corporate gig, and we’d start singing Michael McDonald songs,” Lehman recalls.
Pleakis says they had joked around about forming a yacht rock band. “Then some of our friends, who are also some of the best musicians in town, wanted to join.”
Such as Mariko Reid, Yacht Rocket’s lead female singer, who is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s voice program. She was trained for opera and the concert stage, but for now, she prefers to stop the show with Chaka Khan’s 1985 hit, “Through The Fire.”
“I think the band is good at threading the needle of being both relatable and complex,” she says. “I like how the music’s both serious and kind of silly.
“Jacob’s depth of knowledge is amazing,” Reid adds. “He has such a deep love for the genre.”
Reid has sung with The Commonheart and other local bands; like Pleakis and DeFade, she does jazz dates at clubs around town.
Yacht Rocket played its first show on a Gateway Clipper cruise sponsored by WDVE in July 2022. It sold out in 10 minutes. They’ve played at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille, Crafthouse Stage & Grill and Bottlerocket Social Hall, to name a few venues.
Their 2023 Gateway Clipper cruise sold out in nine minutes. They hurriedly scheduled a second cruise for that evening, and tickets were gone in a half-hour. An August brunch show at City Winery sold out as well. Clearly, they’re onto something.
“It’s already exceeded our wildest expectations,” says Lehman. “We’re in a unique position in that we have a fan base” that comes to the shows in captain’s hats and Hawaiian shirts.
Devotees will be disappointed to know that Yacht Rocket has no shows coming up, though Lehman and Pleakis do a monthly yacht rock DJ set at Blue Sky Kitchen & Bar in East Liberty; the next one is on Oct. 19.
In the meantime, they’re planning a tighter show, and hoping to play some casinos and out-of-town gigs in 2024.
And they engage in an ongoing debate: who’s yacht rock and who isn’t?
“Jackson Browne is close; he’s on the dock,” Pleakis says. “The Eagles are back at the hotel somewhere.”
You might hear The Eagles at Honky-Tonk Jukebox, the monthly jamboree held at Bloomfield’s Liedertafel Singing Society. You’ll certainly hear Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Founder and frontman Jon Bindley also throws in some vintage Louis Jordan: “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” are crowd pleasers, as are Bindley originals such as “Akimbo Boogie” and “Alright, All Ready!”
Call it Bloomfield boogie-woogie.
“This was something I had talked to a lot of people about doing,” Bindley says.
But he was concerned about selling classic country to yinzers. After the first few shows in 2018 and 2019, though, Bindley stopped worrying.
“We were totally blown away” by the support, he recalls. “There’s no other crowd in Pittsburgh like it.”
And it’s true: You’ll see two-stepping couples celebrating a golden anniversary, 40-somethings celebrating a Friday, the tattooed and pierced, and brand new 21-year-olds, all doing the boot scootin’ boogie.
Bindley leads some of the best musicians in the city, including Pete Freeman on pedal steel and guitarist Donnie Bell. He’ll also bring in guests who might not be country musicians, like Billy Price, Melinda Colaizzi and Yacht Rocket’s Mariko Reid.
The next Honky-Tonk Jukebox will be the annual “Zombie-Tonk” Halloween party on Oct. 27. The series continues every month, usually on the last Friday.
Yacht rock and honky-tonk: not much overlap. Probably none, in fact. Except for the sheer joy of hearing a song you love played live by expert musicians, whether it’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or “What a Fool Believes.”
“We’re doing things that make people really happy,” says Reid.