The Riot Room is living up to its name and to its building’s heritage.
Five years ago, the space at 4048 Broadway, long known as the Hurricane, was on the brink of irrelevance in the music community. Then two brothers stepped in and rescued it.
Their motives were deeper than profits. There were sentimental reasons, too.
“We played the Hurricane when we were still kids,” said Tim Gutschenritter, who bought the business with a partner in February 2008. “Dallas was 12, I was 14.”
The place was also a favorite hangout of their father, Tim “Gooch” Gutschenritter, who died in 2012.
“Our pop was a rocker, man,” said Gutschenritter. “He loved music and always was a huge supporter of local art. He especially frequented the Hurricane. He always took my brother and me to shows there. Seeing Season to Risk go though all of their musical incarnations was super-inspiring to us.”
So when the Hurricane appeared to be teetering, his sons stepped in and changed its name but rejuvenated its reputation by tapping into two of their own passions: good music and upscale beer.
“Such a stigma had become attached to the place that a lot of people had a negative perception of what it couldn’t become,” said Dallas Gutschenritter, Tim’s younger brother and co-owner. “Being musicians who like a ton of music and who also appreciate good booze, we figured we could do anything we want.”
And they have, successfully.
Friday night, the Riot Room celebrates its fifth anniversary, proving that sometimes repeating history will deliver you from doom.
The original Hurricane was in business from July 1986 through June 2006. Stan Henry was part of its management for those 20 years.
“From the mid-1980s till it was sold, the patrons and the staff at the Hurricane were part of a very special era,” said Henry, who then ticked off a long list of some of his favorite performances over those years (see box). Henry said that when place was sold, the entertainment climate was in swift transition.
“Westport was changing, the Power & Light District was about to get up and going, other music venues had opened who were doing the same bands we were,” he said. “Even some of the bigger rooms were doing the stuff we’d done. It was all cumulative. So the owners decided it was time to sell.”
The place remained the Hurricane for two years. During that time, the Gutschenritters were part of its staff. But the place wasn’t the same, even to onlookers.
“I remember when the (original) Hurricane closed down, we were on the road,” said R.L. Brooks, who was in the band Flee the Seen from 2003 to 09. He is now a member of Maps for Travelers. “We came back to a less-than-stellar version of the Hurricane with big-screen TVs, cover bands and just a loss of identity.”
Even before it was sold, the place had also fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair, starting with its notoriously dirty bathrooms.
All that change and decline was a little too much for the brothers to take, given their history with the place. They’d been performing there since the mid-1990s, first with the Sunshine Vandals, then with National Fire Theory. One of those Fire Theory shows was especially memorable.
“I’ll never forget opening for Superdrag,” said Tim Gutschenritter. “They were one of our biggest inspirations.
“It was a Wednesday night. We were still teenagers. About 40 people showed up. They were great to us, told us we kicked ass.… It was truly the highlight of my musical career.”
All that history and nostalgia prompted Tim Gutschenritter to step in and buy the business, first with a partner, Robbie Hadley. In 2009, Dallas Gutschenritter joined the partnership. In 2010, the brothers became sole owners. In a way, they’d taken over a personal shrine.
“It’s kind of a surreal thing to own a venue that you played shows at when you were 14 years old,” said Tim Gutschenritter, 32. “But you know, playing the club, you learn a lot. There are a lot of similarities between playing it and owning it.”
Right away, they set out to revive the music part of the venue’s reputation and clean up some of the rest, starting with those toilets.
“The biggest deal since we opened the place, bigger than any big show, was when we remodeled the bathrooms,” said Tim Gutschenritter. “They were like the Black Lagoon. You never knew what kind of disease you might walk out with.”
To help fortify the music agenda, they brought in Neill Smith as the chief talent buyer in 2010. The goal was to be ambitious, eclectic and flexible and avoid getting pigeonholed as a club that features only one or two genres.
“What we’re doing now is completely different from what we were doing our first year,” Smith said. “The crowds change, you get a shift and a new younger crowd with different music interests so you have to shift, too. When we opened we were doing metal nights, rock ’n’ roll DJs. Now we’re doing trap DJs and electronic-based events, things we weren’t doing five years ago.”
Asked to name some of their biggest or favorite shows, all three have no trouble coming up with a diverse list of names from all over the music landscape, some of them big names, others who were on the verge (see list), including the British soul singer Estelle, rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, the rock band Helmet, the chillwave producer Tory Y Moi, the hardcore band Exodus and the folk/roots band the Lumineers. The band sold out the Riot Room in April.
The Lumineers have since performed on “Saturday Night Live” and at this year’s Grammy Awards show, where they were a best new artist nominee.
“These days you don’t have to fit within limited expectations,” said Dallas Gutschenritter. “We’ll have two completely different events going on at the same time — a metal show inside and trap DJ on the patio — and it all works. I don’t think you could have done that 10 years ago.”
Besides the restrooms and the music agenda, the other big overhaul was of the beer selection.
“At the old place, there were maybe eight beers on tap and six bottled beers,” said Dallas Gutschenritter. “We decided, ‘Yeah, it’s a music venue, that’s good, but you’ve got to do something else on top of the live music.’ We’ve always loved good beer, and craft beers were really becoming a trend at the time.”
The venue now has 52 beers on tap and about 100 more in bottles in a reserve cellar. And it has developed a reputation among beer geeks as a joint with an eminent selection. Some flowery prose from the online magazine Imbibe:
“It’s the kind of place where hip-hop fans clutch tulip glasses of Great Divide Brewing’s Yeti Imperial Stout, fashionable young women trade sips of Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale and suburbanites order Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, all while listening to metal, jazz, soul, rock, ska or whatever is on stage.”
From the Worst Beer Blog Ever: “Their beer selection has people turning heads as well. Honestly, it’s about as good as anywhere in the city.”
Besides serving all those craft beers, the Riot Room schedules beer tastings, like the Beer-lesque: Tasting and Tassels event in August, a beer tasting with Deschutes Brewery from Portland, Ore., that included a special reserve-series brew on tap and burlesque dancers onstage. For its anniversary party on Friday, another beer event has been scheduled. “We will be tapping six to 10 rare beers that we are super-excited about,” Tim Gutschenritter said.
That excitement is contagious.
“When I started, I thought I liked beer, but they’ve introduced another passion into my life, that whole craft-beer vibe,” said Drew Little, who has tended bar at the Riot Room since 2011. “They came up with this business model that turned the place from a crusty dive into a music venue with lots of character.”
Like many of the Riot Room’s employees, Little is also part of the city’s music scene, a member of the bands the Slowdown and Heroes & Villains. He used to be the drummer in the major-label band Vedera, formerly Veda. He is also part of the venue’s storied past.
“I first played at the Hurricane with Veda when I was 16,” said Little, 25. “We played a show with National Fire Theory; that’s when I met Tim and Dallas. The staff (at Riot Room) isn’t all musicians, but we all have a super passion for music.”
They also have experience that comes in handy when it comes to dealing with visiting bands, another facet that burnishes the venue’s reputation.
“With live music ranging from metal to folk to DJs, each group has a different perspective when they come through,” said Christopher Teuber, a Riot Room bartender and member of the band In the Grove. “Having (musicians) on staff makes it easier to identify and (meet) bands’ needs.”
“We employ people who want to talk about the night life and what’s happening in the music scene,” said Tim Gutschenritter. “It improves the overall vibe.”
The revival of the former Hurricane has been widely appreciated, especially by those who remember the venue’s past.
“They really saved something dear and historic to me,” said Steve Tulipana, co-owner of the music venue RecordBar at 1020 Westport Road and a member of several current and former Kansas City bands, including Season to Risk. “I appreciate that I can still walk into Riot Room and feel some of the magic that the Hurricane was to me in the ’90s.”
“They took the ghost and shell of what became a fumbling concept of the Hurricane’s last days and resuscitated its strong tradition of rock ’n’ roll,” said Billy Smith, a member of several Kansas City bands, who now lives in New York. “I’m really proud of them.”
“They restored the original flair to the place but improved the amenities,” Brooks said. “The patio became nicer, the bathrooms were upgraded, you had a sound staff that knew what was going on. They brought their love of beers to the table, and they book great acts from all over the country.”
Some of their neighbors appreciate the results, too.
“I’ve got to hand it to them: They consistently bring in good crowds, crowds that are good for Westport,” said Bill Nigro, a Westport merchant whose businesses include Dark Horse Tavern at 4112 Pennsylvania Ave. “I really like their staff and what they’re doing there.”
The brothers and Neill Smith plan to keep that flair going, even in the face of other responsibilities and challenges. In 2011, the Gutschenritters bought Czar Bar on Grand Boulevard, a few blocks south of the Power & Light District and, with Smith, are working on giving that place an identity of its own, one that includes food.
Smith said that at a time when music venues of all sizes are closing, like the Beaumont Club at 4050 Pennsylvania Ave., the key is to keep growing and improving. And anticipating change.
“The concept shifts every year,” he said. “Just when you think you have it figured out, the answer is different. The goal this year was to get more national shows and involve more local bands in the national shows, do bigger local events and do more late-night electronic events on the patio. Those have been successful. But who knows what next year will be like?”
Henry said the venue’s future is in the best of hands: people who are vested in its history but recognize the need to change and evolve.
“I’ve known Timmy and Dallas since they were kids, playing the club,” he said. “And Gooch was a hell of a character, always supportive of his kids. It makes sense for them to own it. Those 20 years were great, but it was time. I think they’ve created something that is similar to the Hurricane, but is (different). I wish them another 15 good years.”