Smooth sailing with Robbie Dupree

Robbie Dupree and friends joined by Jimmy Fallon in Woodstock, 2010.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” says the White Queen to Alice, prescribing for the girl a kind of training regimen for the development of credulity and a willing imagination. Here’s an equivalent musical exercise to try today: like something that you don’t like. Just like it. Throw on some Bieber, some REO Speedwagon, some Air Supply, some Dream Theater, Strauss the waltz king, 50 Cent, Bolton or whatever reliably pushes your “wrong” button. Make a positive assumption about its value before you even click play. “Go there,” and don’t worry that the face that you are making will stick.

Act like you believe and belief may follow…or not. If nothing else, this exercise in contrarian positivity can reveal some interesting things about the composition and behavior of taste. We experience personal taste as a mysterious function of our essence. Why we like what we like may be a complex accident of culture, history, experience, genetics and will, but we like to believe that our taste is true, our one infallible guide to the genuine within us and around us: affinity-based, truth-seeking, aloof to the persuasions of culture and crowdthink. It can be quite a shock when we recognize that a simple dated production move or an arbitrary element of style – a splash of DX7 piano, a slap bass, a gated reverb, half a Rod McKuen sentiment or a neatly trimmed beard – can be our real grounds for dismissing something as evil garbage.

Woodstock’s Robbie Dupree, whom I admire and don’t need to pretend to like, scored a major hit with “Steal Away” at the dawn of the ‘80s and in so doing met the qualification requirements for “one-hit wonder.” Like many so-called wonders (especially those not associated with a novelty hit), Dupree actually sports a robust and consistent discography and a number of well-known and well-liked songs, albeit no inarguable second hit. He enjoys the ongoing respect and loyalty of a fleet of A-list sidemen and a core fanbase that rightly believes that he has only gotten better since his chance encounter with megastardom 30+ years ago. Not only has he survived the degradations of the one-hit cycle with his integrity and his Muse intact, but, rather than chasing trends, Dupree has also stayed pretty much true to the sound and sentiment of that first hit. It’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.

I imagine that it hasn’t been easy. Soft rock and soul must require guts of steel. The sound and feel of “Steal Away” have come to be known – maliciously, but also irresistibly – as “yacht rock.” Its figureheads are Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins. Its inspirations and forebears are the lighter side of the confessional singer/songwriter scene (James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg), sexed up with the quiet-storm soul of Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross and juiced with a healthy dose of the fusion- and funk-inflected sound of McDonald-era Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, circa The Royal Scam and everything after. Becker and Fagen are far too ironic and biting to be yacht-rockers themselves, but their late-‘70s sound – a tense, colored modern jazz dissonance washed down with grooves of the highest smooth – is a yacht-rock article of faith.

Too easily dismissed as schmaltz and pap, and usually for extramusical reasons like clothes and beards and album art, the default yacht-rock sound conceals quite a bit of musical challenge and adventure under its smooth veneer. Players generally know this, but don’t waste your breath trying to convince anyone else. These days, and until some unforeseeable cultural ground shift, yacht rock is mocked rock.

Care to revisit some Robbie Dupree? I recommend a few more recent offerings, if you want to know what this formidable cat is really about. 2008’s fine Time and Tide is both lush and edgy. It’s a soul affair, smooth, rich and surprisingly dark in its confessional meditations. Darting string and synth arrangements distress the fringes of Dupree’s rock-solid longtime rhythm section. Some scrappy guitar work from the late Larry Hoppen adds a bluesy toughness to the prevailing Steely-Danesque harmonic colors. The crafty songs reflect on the vagaries of personal fortune and cultural change and turbulence. Yacht-rock stereotypes be damned: The writing is clean, precise and largely cliché-free. Plus, the album reveals Dupree as a nothing-short-of-badass harmonica player.

Next for your consideration: Robbie Dupree with David Sancious, an exquisite 2003 voice-and-piano duet with the esteemed Sancious, a long-time Dupree collaborator who has also been known to play with the likes of Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting and many others of that ilk. This is a luminous session, and what stands out about it is how modest, measured and cheese-free Dupree really is as a vocal stylist. In a sparse setting that allows nothing but room for the singer to explore, I dare you to find an overwrought or indecorous vocal effusion anywhere on this disc. You won’t. Dupree knows his sweet spot and lives there.

And it still may not be to your taste. Dupree is, after all, a still-practicing proponent of the yacht-rock worldview. How could he be otherwise? He lived it. The yacht stands for inner peace in a crazy world. The yacht represents an individualism and autonomy earned over time and through great travail; it symbolizes interface with nature, placid and turbulent, and it also stands for a voluntary detachment, a separation from the affairs of the materialistic world.

But it is a paradoxical separation, a financed detachment. The yacht is a real yacht, after all – not a mere visualization technique. What paid for the yacht? A hit, of course, but just one. And the elusive, ineffable nature of fame and acclaim is a key theme of the yacht-rock meditation. Let Dupree explain it himself in the third verse of the autobiographical “Lucky” from Time and Tide:

Heard my song on an LA station
Big billboards and a nomination
Got a limousine, a black Continental
I caught a ride but it was just a rental
Many times I thought they’d count me out
I’m a long shot running and I won’t stop now
I got lucky

Well, lucky, yes – but also good.

Robbie Dupree & Friends, Saturday, May 11, 8:30, $20, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, https://www.bearsvilletheater.com.

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  1. Dupree is a one-hit wonder whose one hit was a copy of an even bigger hit that came out one year earlier; What a Fool Believes by The Doobie Brothers.

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