Small Venue Tour: Republic

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Photos by John-Paul Zajackowski

DCMD welcomes its new feature, Small Venue Tour, where we take a look inside new music spaces in D.C. that you may not have been to (or know about) and share the interesting stories behind them.  

Taking over Video Americain’s old location (you can actually still see the store’s neon lights in the back patio), Takoma Park restaurant Republic has been building buzz not just its food-but also for its new live music slate too.

The venue’s head music booker, Catherine Rytkonen, has strong ties to Takoma Park. A former army brat, Rytkonen’s family relocated to the area in the mid-1990s and considers the town home.

“About two years ago, I stopped dating guys and I started dating the D.C. music scene,” she laughs, but for her it’s a very accurate description of her growth and connection to D.C. “I found a really great community in it, you know? Good musicians know other really good musicians. You can definitely find the best in D.C.”

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Prior to Republic, Rytkonen was employed by 9:30 Club and worked closely with local artist Justin Jones to promote his tour and 2012 album Fading Light (Jones is signed under 9:30 Club’s record label).

“Doing tours is tough. Justin describes touring as if you’re throwing a party in 25 different cities for people you don’t know,” Rytkonen says. The biggest frustration came from the interaction with venues.

“They weren’t a lot of help,” she laughs. “They book the artists, but they expect you to do a lot of the work. And I think that’s the standard practice.”

Logistics were also a nightmare for Rytkonen. “I’m just a problem solver; everytime I work with something I think about how I can do it better.  I think that was my view at looking at other venues.”

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As Republic was in the process of opening its doors in December 2013, Rytkonen wanted to find a way to grow Takoma Park’s music scene. She reached out to the restaurant’s executive chef and co-owner, Danny Wells.

“I’d never been in the restaurant business industry, so I met with him and said ‘I’ll host for you, I’ll shuck oyster, I’ll do whatever I can. I just want to be involved!’,” she says. It was essentially a match made in heaven.

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“I was always around music a lot,” Wells says. “Part of the concept [for the restaurant] was always to include live music. I think when [ co-owner] Jeff Black and I were putting the concept together, it was something we both thought would be fun; to have a restaurant that also featured live music.”

Wells wanted to leverage music as an amenity for slower evenings and brunches. Like Rytkonen, Wells wanted to do something that would build Takoma Park’s nightlife and music scene. The interest in doing local events was pretty instant.

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“The second that word got out [about booking live music], we’d have people already knocking on our door, dropping off cards and saying, ‘Hey, I heard you’re going to have music-I’m a musician,” Wells recounts. “I had a stack of [band] business cards and we were six months away from opening”

To kick-off Republic’s live music program, the venue hosted an event for advocacy group Fair Vote that featured former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Novoselic is also the chairman of the organization.

“That was just so exciting to me,” Rytkonen says. “That’s good for a little ol’ venue that could.”

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Pictured: Republic’s head music booker Catherine Rytkonen and open mic host Rob Hinkal

 In addition to hosting concerts, Republic also has an established open-mic night on the second and fourth Sunday of each month, with a regular blue jam session on Mondays.

“It started out with three guys, then it was seven, then it was eight jamming!,” Rytkonen recounts about the first blues night.

Rytkonen and Wells are optimistic about the future prospects of the venue and growing D.C.’s community of musicians. Their next goal is to diversify Republic’s music lineup even further.

“It’s starting to come together now. People are going to be seeking out Republic for live music,” Wells says. “The venue has hit a special nerve for the people of Takoma Park”.