“The Toast of the Town”
Think wedding bands are lame? Meet Flipside.
Wedding bands are the toy poodles of the music world. Overgroomed. Vaguely irritating. Hard to take seriously. They usually play ”That’s the Way (I Like it)” and they usually play it badly. In the 1998 Adam Sandler movie ”The Wedding Singer,” the title character is dumped at the altar because he’s, well, a wedding singer.
Happily, there are exceptions. If a typical wedding band, as defined by Corin Ashley of the Murray Hill Talent, is ”a bunch of gray-haired guys who used to be music teachers standing around looking at the sheet music to ‘Brick House,’ ” Flipside is not one of them. The seven-piece Boston-based ensemble is currently booked 16 months in advance for some of the toniest nuptials and high-end corporate events in New England.
”They’re not an ‘I Will Survive’ band,’ ” explains Ashley, a booking agent who moonlights as music director and frequent guitarist for Flipside. ”They’re a Temptations band.” It’s disco cheese versus Motown soul, and any music fan worth her big record collection knows the difference. That included Suzy Welch, former editor of the Harvard Business Review, who hired Flipside to play at the reception following her wedding to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch last spring.
”I have pretty wide taste and I like new music,” says Welch (who was then Suzy Wetlaufer), who had booked a band through Willow Entertainment for a Christmas party the year before. ”The test, of course, is people dancing, and they danced all night long. It went much longer than we planned because people didn’t want to stop.”
It sounds so basic: Keep Aunt Ellen on the dance floor. And yet so many groups get it wrong.
So what does Flipside have that made it the band of choice when ”The View” hostess Elisabeth Hasselbeck wed her Boston College sweetheart — and pro quarterback — Tim? Or when Boston Ballet held a ball for ”Swan Lake” last April — where the dancers, finally released from a long sit-down dinner and auction, burst onto the floor in an explosion of spins and backflips as the band launched into Earth, Wind & Fire’s ”Shining Star”? What qualifies Flipside to rock the house at Tom Finneran’s daughter Kelley’s New Year’s Eve wedding, and serenade all ages at the 2004 Red Sox Wives picnic at Fenway?
To start: a veteran of Rick James’s band at the microphone; a bassist who squeezes recording sessions with neo-soul star D’Angelo in between weddings; a keyboardist who also backs R&B crooner Brian McKnight; and a soul diva who makes mincemeat of Michael Jackson medleys.
Encyclopedic knowledge of pop music helps, too.
”During the [Red Sox] picnic I jumped up onstage and started playing ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis,” recalls Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who supplements his day job with occasional charity gigs as a singer-guitarist. ”What was amazing is the band didn’t know what I was going to play, and they just started filling in the parts. You have to be a good musician to pull that off.”
Musical pedigree is also key to Flipside’s rise through the ranks of wedding bands.
”For lots of guys who do weddings, it’s a ragtag pickup gig. If you look at their resume, the most impressive credential was opening up for Wang Chung in 1987,” says Ashley, who is familiar to Boston rock audiences as the bassist-singer for the Pills. ”We’ve got super-hot players who are starting to have families, and this keeps them off the road. [Willow Entertainment] is a business, and the musicians are on retainer. They have a sense of security and stability.”
They also have Ashley, who identifies himself, variously, as a ”harmonic concierge” and ”bride whisperer.”
Instead of sending the Welches the usual event-planning forms to fill out, Ashley went to their Beacon Street townhouse and pored over their CDs. He queried the couple about their shared musical experiences. The three of them created an elaborate menu of songs. Ashley gave them his cellphone number and encouraged them to use it, day or night. Flipside played everything from Van Morrison to OutKast, Sinatra to Beyonce.
”Sometimes at the upscale weddings you feel a separation, like you’re the workers,” says Flipside vocalist Darcel Wilson, who’s worked with Branford Marsalis and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire. ”At Jack and Suzy’s wedding, they had us come in through the house and we’re like, ‘Oh what a great place. These people must be really into something that nets them a lot of money.’ They took us into the living room and asked us to have a seat, told us to hang out until it was time to start playing. We felt like invited guests. We didn’t know whose party it was, all we knew is it was a gig on Beacon Hill. Then we saw Vernon Jordan and Matt Lauer walk in. It was a good party.”
Willow Entertainment books dozens of bands for weddings as well as corporate events, but Flipside — which includes singers Wilson and Mark Love, bassist Lenny Stallworth, drummer David ”Pookie” Cole, keyboardist Davy Nathan, and saxophonist Elan Trotman — commands among the highest fees. The band’s bookings have quadrupled in the past five years, according to Ashley, who says he counsels clients on a budget to avoid seeing Flipside live.
”If you see them live you will have to have them at your wedding,” he says. ”We have a 99 percent hire rate with Flipside.”
The group — which plays only club dates during the winter, following the busy wedding season — makes between $3,000 and $6,000 per engagement, depending on factors ranging from the event location to the day of the week. Saturday weddings in June and September are, Ashley says, ”radioactive.” He’s watched brides-to-be in taxis converging simultaneously at the curb in front of his Malden office, racing to get him a check to secure Flipside for their weddings. Ashley himself is a rabid Flipside fan, to the point where he’s picked himself up a tux and a Telecaster.
” ‘Twist and Shout’ is my big number,” says Ashley. ”As a rocker guy who knows every Stones song, it’s a tremendous privilege to play in a funkalicious band. But mostly I’m there for the bride and groom. There’s a lot of decent bands out there, but only a handful of them get that this is the most important day in somebody’s life.”
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.