Punk block party
New owners of the Riff Raff Club want to bring the music scene back to 126 W. Second St.
“R&R … OK, great, can you play on the 26th?”
James Simon, 33, part-owner of the aptly re-named Riff Raff Rock Club—formerly the Red Room—can barely catch his breath these days before the phone rings again. Right now, he is chatting with a punk band from New York City looking for a gig in Chico on one of its “off nights” between Portland and San Francisco. The band heard through the grapevine that the Riff Raff treats musicians well—offering no guarantees but full take of the door as well as a meal and place to stay.
Within minutes, Simon is scribbling the band’s name onto an already full calendar in the tiny back office of the pizza parlor that adjoins the Riff Raff Club. He looks tired but excited with each new show. Just a day ago, the club had its grand opening daylong celebration featuring loads of bands and over 700 people coming in and out throughout the day.
“We really want to bring some attention back to this Second Street area and make it like it used to be,” Simon says. “We need to be very pro-active about advertising and find creative ways to get people in the doors—even if they haven’t heard of the bands on the bill.”
Simon, a punk fan himself with crimson-streaked hair and smoked vocal chords, purchased the former Red Room/Firestorm Pizza with partner Brian Paddock. The two longtime friends share a vision of stringing together punk and indie-rock shows nonstop in hopes of recreating a music buzz about the legendary venue, a space that shares more history than practically any little club in Chico.
Back in the 1960s, it housed Aunt Martha’s Kitchen, a folk and rock music hangout/coffeehouse where bands like Bob Seals’ Flying Iguana Brothers held court. Then it was known as Nellie’s and showcased local rock and country-rock bands during the 1970s and early ‘80s. Then Nellie’s died and Hey Juan’s was born, first as a Mexican-food joint and then, increasingly, as a late-night venue for local bands.
The 1990s found Hey Juan’s succeeded by Juanita’s, which continued the food theme but, under the ownership of Syb Blythe, became the hottest club in town for local and touring alternative bands, with intimate shows of an eclectic nature nearly every night of the week (as one might guess, attendance was often low).
While it’s not a perfect space for live music—the small stage currently sits in the window at the front of a long, narrow room where bands play directly facing a wall or the side of a sleek, curly bar—the new owners have big hopes of re-arranging the area to better utilize the layout (taking out some walls, creating a larger stage). But that’s if things go well in the next year—and history shows that will take hard work.
“I think in the past maybe some things haven’t worked out at this space because owners haven’t stuck to their guns,” says local music veteran Matt Hogan, whose rockabilly band The Incredible Diamonds performs every Thursday at the Riff Raff. “If owners keep doing what they originally planned and keep things community oriented, the people will come.”
Simon, whose pizza recipes are used in the food side of the venture, has years of food/advertising experience working at Woodstock’s Pizza, and Paddock has spent 14 years in the bar business (with the last four at Normal Street Bar). Both realize the importance of offering a fun place to hang that includes cheap, strong drinks and good house music that will keeps crowds around even when the live music’s over (the CD jukebox is loaded with new-school punk, and “the house whisky is Jim Beam, house tequila is Cuervo,” Simon points out).
“Basically it won’t take much to clean this place up and get it running more effectively,” Paddock says. These plans included fixing up the outside back patio for smokers, who will be able to take drinks outside, and focusing on a more customer-service oriented vibe. “As soon as the students get back, we should be doing great,” he says.
Paddock notes that the business will incorporate both all-ages shows—which will occur primarily during the days ("as long as we serve food, we can have minors,” he says)—and over-21 shows at night. Both owners say they have been “blown away” by the friendly support of other local promoters and business owners downtown.
Concerning security, often an issue at all-ages and over-21 punk and hip-hop shows, Simon explains that the business is well insured but that patrons are trusted to police themselves.
“I tell people if they don’t show respect for the place then I’ll just cut the power and kick everybody out,” he says. “But so far, we haven’t had a problem. There’s even one guy who every time when he starts to get drunk throws himself out.” He laughs.
Simon believes the key to success for the Riff Raff will be staying organized and grounded, tracking costs and budgets well and using good common sense. If everything works out the way they hope—with pizza delivery business taking off and crowds increasing for the usually $1-$3 dollar concerts—then structural changes could be made that would insure a long, healthy run for the Riff Raff.
“People say the music scene died in Chico, but I think Chico has died on the music scene," Simon adds. "We’re here to help change that."