In 2010, American Idol taped a segment with former winners in their hometowns — a peek at the humble beginnings of now-famous pop superstars. David Cook, who won the reality-show singing competition in 2008, grew up in Blue Springs. Where around KC did Cook cut his teeth?
"This is the Riot Room," Cook says, as the camera scans the Westport venue's circular bar. "This is one of the main local venues here in Kansas City that I actually grew up playing in. As you can see, it's a long way from the Idol stage."
One of the club's current owners, Tim Gutschenritter, doesn't remember Cook playing the club. He also doesn't remember ever running into the perfectly coifed singer-songwriter during his formative years in Westport. At the time of the broadcast, the Riot Room had been open only about three years. It's more likely that Cook played the Hurricane, the venue that preceded the Riot Room at 4048 Broadway. The Hurricane also happens to be the place where Gutschenritter and his brother, Dallas, cut their teeth.
"We were utility dudes [at the Hurricane]," Tim says of their time working for John Kelly, who also owned the Jerry's Bait Shop party bars in Lee's Summit and Lenexa. "We were working the door and booking shows. We packed the venue with bands we liked and made [Kelly] money."
The brothers knew the scene well, having played shows in Westport and midtown — "The Daily Grind, Grand Emporium, El Torreon, the Hurricane," Tim says — since they were teens. But eventually the musician's lifestyle took its toll. "I've quit playing music," Tim says. "I was sleeping on dudes' couches for 15 years. I was sick of being broke."
So in 2008, the Gutschenritters opened the Riot Room, and this weekend, the club celebrates its fifth anniversary. In its first year in business, the club successfully courted the local heavy-metal and underground hip-hop scenes. But 2010 does hold a little bit of meaning.
"That was the year that shit really came together," Tim says. Neil Smith, the club's talent buyer, booked the Bronx, Twin Shadow, Anvil, Blitzen Trapper and Devin the Dude — up-and-coming acts that fit nicely in the club's 300-person-capacity room.
"Things just kind of slowly transformed, and we got into doing really heavy shows. But mostly, people just stayed and partied because there was such a good fuckin' vibe," Tim says. "We're more refined, and we have a solid team working behind the scenes. Things have gotten easier. Everyone chips in. There's a weird camaraderie among the people who work here. And basically, it's just a fun place to work. I mean, how could it not be with all of this beer we have?"
The beer definitely helps. The club has 58 taps and more than 75 bottle selections in its special reserve. Founders, Stone, Schlafly, New Belgium and Avery are all well-represented.
"Beer is part of our brand," Tim explains. "We get good beer out to different audiences."
Another secret of their success is the synergy between the local music community and clubs, which makes it easier to coordinate shows and sell tickets. "As the city grows, everyone is working with each other more. I guess that's the whole goal of being progressive," he says.
The night we spoke with Tim Gutschenritter, the club was hosting Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. A sold-out crowd — made up mostly of upwardly mobile white people — packed the place. Outside, a group of three young white women were impressed by the openness of the club's back patio. "Ooh, I've never been back here before," one of them marveled. The next night, Friday, a different kind of crowd would turn up for local hip-hop from Info Gates and Godemis. On Saturday, 1990s alt-rock act Candlebox would hit the stage.
"We pretty much live in the fuckin' '90s up in here," Tim says, referring to the time when much of the staff, both past and present, was in its prime. But, he says, "The difference between us and everyone else is that we cater to everyone."