The Riptide Keeps on Adapting – And Rockin’

By Noma Faingold

Under the expected gray Outer Sunset skies late Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, at Taraval Street and 46th Avenue, women in casual sun dresses with flat sandals or shorts and graphic tees and men in rumpled cargo shorts and plaid shirts – all wearing masks – were meandering around a blocked-off, mini street fair, seemingly gravitating toward the beloved neighborhood dive bar, The Riptide. 

Riptide photo 5 of 5 owners Noma SB 10-20David Quinby and Lee James, owners of The Riptide, pose next to “The Corral,” an outdoor space created in response to the regulations put in place to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Photo by Noma Faingold.

There was a socially distant queue outside for to-go drink orders. The Riptide has been open for limited hours since mid-April as The Riptide Outpost with pick-up service of cocktails and snacks like beef jerky for its loyal clientele of surfers, S.F. Zoo employees, music lovers and neighbors. The street fair also brought out families and dogs. 

Much of the cheerful, eclectic crowd on Sunday watched the live band, the bluesy Lee Vilensky Trio, in or around the perimeter of a large, recently built parklet co-owners David Quinby and Les James have dubbed “The Corral.” It was constructed by Quinby, James and customers of The Riptide, mostly out of wood pallets, which were donated by a regular. 

In the past few months, all the live outdoor performances have adhered to the City’s COVID-19 restrictions of no vocals, harmonicas or horns. 

“We started booking concerts again to give us hope,” said Quinby, who opened the bar with James 16 years ago, largely because, as musicians, they wanted to “create a juke joint on the edge of town.” 

They also wanted the venue to feature American roots music they loved, namely bluegrass. The last few years, however, the variety of acts at The Riptide has expanded to include everything from hip-hop to punk. 

“Live music is what brought people back,” said Quinby. “The community is showing up once again and lifting us up musically, emotionally, spiritually. It’s like history repeating itself.” 

Quinby was referring to the painful (yet inspiring) history of the fire that gutted the bar in 2015, only to be restored to its rustic, honky-tonk vibe. The renaissance was made possible with the help of numerous fundraisers organized by San Francisco venues, musicians and even a district supervisor. 

“We were humbled and grateful to the community,” said James. “It allowed us to come back.”

The Lee Vilensky Trio played for three hours for gratuities only. Symbolically, the cowboy “tip boot” placed in front of the band is the mate of the left tip boot that perished in the fire. 

Another musical activity keeping the bar alive is the virtual Riptide Monday Night Open Mic on Zoom, hosted by Charlie Kaupp, 41, who is also a musician in the band The Treacherous French and has been the host of the well-attended Monday in-person open mic at The Riptide for several years. 

Open Mic ScreenshotA familiar sight for 2020: a Zoom screen shot. Like most events, Riptide Monday Night Open Mic has gone virtual. Hosted by Charlie Kaupp, the collaboration of local musicians has continued despite the need for social distancing. Courtesy photo.

After a rough start online with some technical challenges, Kaupp has the weekly open mic running smoothly. He’s not being paid right now but wanted to keep it going as an outlet for musicians who are gigging much less, if at all, and to give less experienced performers an opportunity to hone their skills. “It’s a labor of love,” he said.

Kaupp quickly became a Zoom expert and advises performers on how to achieve the best sound, when needed. More importantly, his approach is welcoming and inclusive to musicians of all levels. 

Charlie Plays Open MicRiptide Monday Night Open Mic host Charlie Kaupp performs during a recent virtual session.Courtesy photo.

“We’re an open mic, not a talent showcase. We create a culture of openness,” he said. “I take care of my people. Being a good host is 20% technical and 80% personality. That’s what makes it special.”

Kaupp, whose musical influences lean toward folk/rock, starts off the open mic nights with two songs, often an original from his four-piece band and a cover. In a stylistic twist, he recently went with a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem, “I Will Survive,” with just guitar and vocals, reminiscent of the 1990s version by the band Cake. 

It is a song everyone can relate to right now. 

One of Kaupp’s bandmates, drummer Cara Madden, has been participating in the virtual open mic night regularly. The single mother from Newark has been using the opportunity to learn guitar and get over stage fright. 

“Even though I’ve been playing drums for 20 years, I still get nervous on stage. When it’s just me and the guitar, it feels like everybody’s looking at me. This is a good way to put myself out there,” Madden said. “Everybody (on the Zoom session) is really supportive of each other. The reaction is always positive. I’ve gained a lot of confidence.”

The Riptide Outpost has covered payroll and product replenishment, but Sunset resident James is so looking forward to being able bring back live music and welcoming the patrons back into the cozy bar – whenever that will be. 

“In the meantime,” he said, “We’ll keep pivoting.”

The Riptide (Outpost) is open Wednesday-Friday, 3-8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 2-8 p.m. The Riptide is located at 3639 Taraval St. For more information, visit https://www.riptidesf.com. For information on the Monday virtual open mic events, 7:30-10:30 p.m., visit the Facebook page Riptide Monday Night Open Mic.

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