“A Place to Belong” Returns

Written by Terry DeBoer on . Posted in Local

Mark Leech portraitMark Leech in front of the revamped stage at Skelletones Skelletones, the former safe-haven, all-ages downtown Grand Rapids concert spot that provided an outlet for young, faith-based bands, fans and others, is readying an encore.

After its ground-breaking run from 2001-09, founder Mark "Mirf" Leech has secured the club's original location and is working toward a September re-opening.

"As time went on I realized that this kind of work resonates at the core of my being, and I've missed it," said Leech, now a church pastor. "And key moments kept pointing me in this direction."

Leech and his wife Annette have a heart for teens and young college students. Mirf himself was in those shoes back in the day, a fan of harder-edged music when he embraced a new-found faith. He stepped into performing in several alternative bands with a musical style foreign to typical church-goers.

But he was part of the alternative "scene," and saw a need and an opportunity. With his contacts, street smarts and experience in youth ministry, he opened up a coffee shop/concert venue at 133 S. Division Ave.

He named it Skelletones – a title he had wanted for one of his previous bands.

The enterprise eventually moved into the more spacious basement and concentrated on just the music. At its peak it was open six nights a week. It became a safe, no-alcohol spot for teens who didn't seem to fit in anywhere else.

"We were all 'outsiders' in many different ways and we found our place," recalled Trevor Loew, a teen from Hudsonville when he frequented the venue. "It was warm, and we belonged. I'm so glad that a new generation will now get a chance to belong here now, too."

Loew posted his thoughts in a Facebook group called "Skelletones Relationship Recovery" where friends and fans have been staying in touch.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Leech closed Skelletones in 2009 to focus on planting a church in the downtown area. The transition was a bit abrupt.

"I kind of unplugged from that scene on purpose," he recalled of his "recovery" period. "I was 20 years into it with performing and promoting shows...I listened to NPR for three months."

His new church – Vintage Bible – and his growing family became priorities. But the Skelletones outreach vibe lingered.

After a meeting of the minds with family, they tested the waters and discovered the original basement location was available. But it had been neglected, damaged and needed a lot of work - from the floor up.

The couple had saved some money for renovations but more was needed. A go-fund-me page is nearing the home stretch toward its $20 thousand goal. gf.me/u/yny54h

Much of the work has been steadily underway – an advantage of the pandemic period which precluded any concerts.

It's been 12 years since Skelletones closed, and now the Leech family includes one teenager, and another soon-to-be. "They've started to develop their own musical tastes and love picking through Dad's old CD's," Mark smiled.

THE SAME DEMO

Last fall word of the planned re-opening went like lightning through social media. Leech opened a "placeholder" Instagram account, posting nothing but a logo. Within a few days, it had 1,200 followers.

Even though the venue will have a new look (a re-positioned stage, for example), the original Skelletones strategy remains: giving young local bands a shot at the stage. (Occasionally there will be a national touring band).

The musical style of Skelletones' second act will also be the same – alternative with a capital A. "Old and new indie rock, punk, ska, metal, hardcore, all those kinds of fringe music forms – that's pretty much our forte," Leech said.

He says the club will be open only on show nights, perhaps three evenings per week. "I'm in a different stage of life now," he said, noting his recent 50th birthday.

NOT A THROWBACK

Leech is firm in stating the re-opening is not a grab at the glory days or a play on nostalgia. "Yes, I know the old Skelletones crowd is now in their 30s with their own kids," he reasoned. "The original gang may pop in to see the new layout, but that's not our target."

That same teen-age group which he still has a heart for is the goal. His church contains former band members and Skelletones regulars.

"Skelletones was THE place for shows when I was a teen looking for a safe place to rock out with my friends and I'm excited to see it come back," posted one supporter.

Darren Anderson is a West Michigan promoter-manager who worked with some of the bands of the first Skelletones era. He said bands there could communicate hope and bond with audiences. "Walls fell and everyone was on the same level," he said.

Connect: Skelletones, 133 S. Division Ave. downtown Grand Rapids
Opening Sept. 2021
www.skelletones.com also Facebook and Instagram under "skelletones"
Author Information
Terry DeBoer
Author: Terry DeBoer
About:
Terry is a journalist/feature writer for newspapers, magazines and websites, with a background in radio broadcasting. His usual beat is arts and entertainment, specializing in Christian/gospel music. A married father of two, he is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan Contributing Writer: West Michigan Christian News August 2011 – Present Feature writer: -Mlive.com (website and various newspapers) 1988– 2016 -Spotlight New Christian Music Magazine 1997-2008 -Church News Editor, Church Herald Magazine 2004-2009

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