The Flipsiders try to re-create some old magic
Jeff Riales and Jed Curran know a good deal when they see one.
They were at The Flipside Bar & Grill on East Main Street to see a Tuesday night show by their friend, Peg Dolan. She invited them onstage for a song. This did not go unnoticed by the club’s owner, Charlie Tannous.
“And Charlie, he was Charlie,” Riales says, as Curran picks up the story:
“He goes, ‘Hey, I don’t want this party to end. I’ll give you each 50 bucks and all the whiskey you want.’”
“So we went home,” Riales says, “and got our guitars.”
That was nearly 20 years ago. Under the influence of 50 bucks and all the whiskey they wanted, Riales and Curran soon launched their open-mic night at the Flipside. As scenes go, it had a good run. About a decade.
In remembrance of the club, and its open-mic night, the Record Archive Backroom Lounge is playing host to a Flipside Reunion at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Riales and Curran will be there. And while it won’t be an open mic -- the show’s only two hours long, not enough time to allow the usual suspects onstage -- many of the regulars will be on hand.
There’s the house band, The Flipsiders: Riales, Curran, Steve Piper and Al Keltz with their guitars, drummer Joe Grillo, Bruce Diamond on bass and mandolin. When Riales gave up co-hosting after 4½ years, Curran, Diamond and Piper carried on.
Frequent Flipsider fliers such as Maria Gillard, Mike Wittek and Dana and Ruth Fine might show as well. Dana has a ridiculously loud voice for a small fella; he says he developed it by singing in corn silos while growing up in Ohio.
And Scott Regan, the host of “Open Tunings,” the morning music show on WRUR-FM (88.5), and an impressive songwriter as well, will be there. While discussing his plans for the reunion, Curran says Regan told him this: “I think I met everybody I know here at the Flipside.”
It was that kind of place.
“The further I get away from it,” Curran says, “the years go by, the shinier that memory is. You knew everybody. I’ve got really good memories of the Flipside. People fell in love with that place.”
“At one point,” Riales says, “it was the place to play in Rochester.”
Curran compares it to iconic cultural scenes like Paris in the 1920s. There was a camaraderie. “Ninety-nine percent of the time there was no level of competition,” he says, “or anybody trying to outdo the other.”
Back in 1997, a mutual friend gave Curran a tape of Riales’ songs. Curran decided he had to meet this guy, this singing, songwriting carpenter. And that happened, at a Dady Brothers open mic at the Shannon Pub in Henrietta. They became fast friends. Riales even vacationed with Curran and his wife, Barb.
When the Dadys’ 30 years of weekly open-mic nights came to a close, the scene evolved into a nomadic drift through a handful of hosts and clubs. “Open mics hanging on by their nails,” Curran says. He and Riales decided to step into the vacuum. And The Flipside, where they’d seen Dolan that night, seemed the perfect setting.
They started with a regular Tuesday gig, but soon “began politicking for Thursday,” Curran says. “You can do a Thursday night and you just have to get through a rough Friday at work. Tuesday drinking made the weeks really long.”
The move to Thursday is when the open mic really started kicking in. Tannous had taken the old neighborhood tavern once known as The Sterling Pub and filled the walls with vinyl album covers from his own collection; hence the name Flipside. Vicki Carr, Tony Bennett, forgotten surf bands.
The kitchen was busy. “Charlie cooking the hamburgers and stuff,” Curran says. “Bombalicious wings.”
Bombalicious wings. Chicken wings that were fried, then briefly tossed on the grill. Charlie’s wife, Beth, oversaw much of the action. Behind the bar, with an uncanny ability to keep customers’ glasses from seeing too much air, was Kristin Flammia Joubert; one of three Kristin bartenders at one time at the Flipside.
“There was really no fights or anything,” Riales says. “I cannot remember a fight.”
“I chased a guy out of there one time,” Curran says.
“Yeah,” Riales concedes, “we definitely chased some guys away.”
They didn’t exactly chase away the metal guys who came to play one night. But Curran, who was in charge of the sign-up list, didn’t let the band’s guitarist get near the stage. “He walked around all night with his beer in his hand saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting kicked out of the open mic.’”
Riales explained it to him: “Look at it this way. I wouldn’t come to a heavy-metal open mic and do my country ----.”
Fill in the blank with the usual four-letter euphemism.
Local guitar hero Bobby Henrie would show up late after one of his gigs. Brian Lindsay would pop in. John and Joe Dady sometimes. Guitarist Chet Catallo, the one-time guitarist for Spyro Gyra. He was recovering from a spinal infection that nearly killed him. “That was his rehab,” Curran says.
Some guys from C.J. Chenier’s zydeco band showed up one night, including Clifford Alexander, who got onstage and played rubboard. The duo of Barbara Malteze and Kevin Higgins, fresh from Texas and now living in Rochester, would stroll in with guitar cases in hand. Those were some of the best nights, Curran says. “He said, ‘What you guys have got going on here is the same thing we’ve got going on in Austin, you know? It’s a good vibe.’”
The vibe could get odd. A guy who worked in a children’s store set up a small, circular trampoline in front of the stage, propped a microphone up in the ceiling and jumped up and down while singing. “Some kind of performance art,” is Curran’s best guess.
That sign-up list was gold. There were only so many slots available. Bob “Doc” Fischetto usually got one. One spot always went to Connie Deming, one of the finest voices in Rochester. “There were so many nights,” Curran says, “she just brought that place to tears.”
Another spot on the list would go to the deep, burnished voice of the late Dave Donnelly. Curran remembers “sitting out in the parking lot, drinking out of a flask with Donnelly, sitting on his tailgate, wheeling out some songs.” And at the end of the night, “sometimes his case would be gone, but his guitar was still there.”
Wheeling out some songs. Early on in their relationship, Curran and Riales put out an album of their songs, “Backwater.” But the Flipside was a proving ground for new material. Curran’s “My Old Friend,” a real heartbreaker about his dog’s last ride to the vet. And Riales introduced one called “My Old Eldorado.” He wrote it in five minutes. “I said I need a new song for the open mic,” he says. “I sat down and wrote it and performed it that night.”
Riales’ current band, The Silvertone Express, is made up mostly of Flipside veterans. And a handful of songs that debuted at the open mic, including “My Old Eldorado,” appear on one of his four albums.
But even with no open mic to push them, throughout the pandemic limbo, both have continued to write songs. Riales recently finished a new one, “Sharp Knife and a Gun.” Pulled from the day’s news.
“It’s about school shootings,” he says. “It’s an old guy’s perspective, ‘This is how you should raise your kids’ kind of thing.”
He recites some words:
We used to put our fists up and challenge one and all
And when the fight was over, we were escorted down the hall
Now there’s just a coward with a sharp knife and a gun
When the crime is over, they just turn around and run
“Gee, what are the odds?” Curran says. “Jeff wrote a good song?”
There are different yardsticks for that. By mine, Riales is the best songwriter in this town.
Curran has been dipping into the well of powerful emotions as well. Sometimes about “a person I’ve lost,” he says. Barb died of cancer last summer.
So much has been lost. The Flipside was sold in 2013, not long after the last open mic by the Flipsiders. Charlie and Beth broke up. At least you can still find Joubert, behind the bar at Johnny’s Pub on Culver Road.
A few years ago -- at one of the “If All of Rochester Wrote the Same Song” shows, where songwriters were invited to write new songs to a specific title -- Riales took on a challenge called “No One Will Ever Know.”
“People that are close to me know,” he says. The song was about his young son, who years ago died in a freak auto accident while Riales was living in Memphis. He came to Rochester with his wife, who had family here, to forget.
It wasn’t working. “When I met Jeff in ’97, he was going through a divorce,” Curran says. Riales was making rumbling noises about going back to Memphis, maybe moving in with his mother, who lived in a bad neighborhood. But Curran and Riales soon became fast friends; Riales even vacationed with Curran and his wife. It was Barb, a hairdresser, who introduced Riales to one of her customers, Doreen.
Marriage? Doreen insisted his 100-pound coonhound couldn’t be a part of the deal. The dog landed on all four feet, adopted by a friend who lived out in the woods, coonhound country. And Riales, married to Doreen, landed on his feet as well.
“Well, I did that for Jeff,” Curran says Barb explained to him. “But I did it for you, too, because I didn’t want your best friend to move back to Memphis.”