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The Riot Room and Westport Saloon close, but 'the best could be yet to come' on Kansas City's music scene

Westport Saloon.jpg
Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
The Westport Saloon, located at 4112 Pennsylvania Ave., announced in November it won't re-open in 2022.

Local music venues are shutting their doors. A music critic argues that it boils down to supply and demand.

The celebratory anniversary seemed so very close. But William Bartelt, professionally known as “Coyote Bill,” won't reach his eight-year milestone in January, hosting a Tuesday night blues jam at The Westport Saloon.

The Westport Saloon, an independent music venue open since 2013 at 4112 Pennsylvania Ave., is closing at the end of the year.

“It's really, it's a terrible thing,” Bartelt said. “There are fewer and fewer live music venues, and there are fewer and fewer live music venues in Kansas City that specifically cater to roots music.”

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William "Cowboy Bill" Bartelt hosts a Tuesday night blues jam at The Westport Saloon. His boogie band also performs there on Friday and Saturday nights.

On Nov. 1, The Westport Saloon posted a letter on Facebook from owner/operator Travis Fields that the venue “will not be returning in 2022.”

Fields explained the closure on his personal Facebook page, where he wrote, “It is my intention to explore new paths, live daytime hours, and enjoy more sunlight in the upcoming year.”

He added, “I am going to make it to a lot more of my daughter’s swim meets, band concerts, and various school events. I’m going to have dinner with my family more often and enjoy weekend camping trips. If nothing else, a brief step back from the hours and grind I have been doing for nearly 20 years.”

The announcement comes on the heels of another Westport venue shutting its doors, The Riot Room. The venue, located on the corner of Westport Road and Broadway Blvd., closed in October after it did not receive a federal pandemic grant.

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The Westport Saloon
The Westport Saloon hosted performances during the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, such as this one with High Plains Jamboree in 2016.

The Westport Saloon features Americana music, described on its website as "Roots, Honky Tonk, Bluegrass, Blues, Blues Rock, Folk, Rockabilly and that Twang you live for," and it also live-streams performances and posts them on YouTube. The Riot Room hosted national touring acts, mostly metal music, as well as hip hop and electronic.

“It's just a function of supply and demand,” said longtime music journalist Bill Brownlee, who blogs about the jazz scene in Kansas City at plasticsax.com. “I've been to more venues in my life that have since closed than I've been to venues that are still open. That's just the way it is.”

Brownlee said he’s not surprised about live music venues closing in Westport and recounts a recent Sunday outing to the Westport Coffee House. The show featured two jazz musicians based in Kansas City and two young musicians from Omaha.

“So there were four men on stage and there were five people in the audience for most of the first set,” he said. “Sometimes there were three, sometimes there were six.”

In contrast, Brownlee said, when he left the show and walked outside there was a traffic jam as cars waited in line at a fast-food restaurant. He added, "But, you know, none of those people cared about live music.”

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Singer-songwriter and banjo player Kelly Hunt performed at The Westport Saloon for a Saturday Christmas matinee live stream in December 2020.

Brownlee argued that “change is good. And if venues close in Westport, they're going to open up somewhere else.”

He explained, “They're just rooms. It's the music that was played on the stages and the memory of that music that matters, not the venues themselves.”

But, for musicians, finding a venue that fits after having a longtime regular gig can be challenging.

William “Cowboy Bill” Bartelt, who performs “high energy, slide-guitar driven Gutbucket Blues and House Rockin’ Boogie” at The Westport Saloon, at least one to three nights a week, is still looking for a new location for 2022. So far, he hasn’t found one, but he remains optimistic.

“It’s one of those things that when it goes away, they talk about, 'Oh, how great it used to be,' and talk about the good old days,” Bartelt said. “The good old days could be tomorrow. If you just get up and get out and have some fun and stay safe, of course. But, you know, yeah, the best could be yet to come.”

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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