The Rapidian

Carrying local music's 'do-it together' torch: A look at the Upper Room

In recent years, a number of smaller, accessible concert venues have shut down or moved away from downtown. The Upper Room hopes to keep Grand Rapids' Do-it-Together music scene going during the downswing.

By day, people walking by might not notice Take Hold Church. Take Hold’s brown brick exterior and big windows marked with a Chi-Ro cross could pass for any of Grand Rapid's many churches.

But by night, one would stop and listen to the guitars and screams echoing up from the church basement.

Take Hold hosts the Upper Room: an all-ages, Do-it-Together (DIT) concert venue. Once located downtown, the Upper Room makes its new home in the quiet, suburban Garfield Park Neighborhood. Known for its eclectic mix of genres and rowdy shows, the Upper Room strives to keep Grand Rapid's DIT scene alive.

The Upper Room consists of a wooden stage, and a sound booth decked out in band stickers within Take Hold's small church gym. Geometric patterns of circles and triangles painted in bold, primary colors cover the gym walls.

Signs of the Upper Room's punk roots show up throughout the venue. Someone used pink spray paint to draw a slice of pepperoni pizza on the front door, and a skate ramp stands in the center of the venue's floor.

Shane Cox, the pastor of Take Hold Church and founder of the Upper Room, maintains a punk aesthetic himself. In his thirties, Cox keeps a wispy beard, wears only black clothes, and has tattoos running across his neck and knuckles.

Cox's office, which sits across the hall from the venue, contains only a wooden desk and a short glass bookcase. A slight draft enters from the room's single, shattered window, leftover from an attempted break-in on Christmas Eve.

The stripped-down, no-frills vibe fits Cox's hope for the Upper Room: providing a space to enjoy music to those who do not have one.

“I don’t want anyone to be forgotten,” Cox said.

Filling the void

In 2006, Cox moved back to Michigan, where he grew up, from California. When he was not busy studying at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, Cox attended shows downtown.

“I felt a void without music for a while,” said Cox.  “It got me thinking ‘what if I started a new venue? What could it hurt if there were more spaces like the Mixtape?’”

Cox started small, inviting his neighbors to sing and study the Bible at his apartment on Franklin Avenue. As more people showed up, Cox decided to start a church and a related concert venue.

Money was tight, but that never deterred Cox. To host the Upper Room’s first show, Cox passed an envelope around to his friends and received $300. He took the money to the Mixtape, asked the owner how much a show would cost, and received a price estimate of $300.

The Upper Room found a permanent storefront on Division Avenue in the Heartside Neighborhood in 2009. Word-of-mouth buzz about the venue grew for several years until it hit its peak in the summer of 2015 when it played 15 shows in a single month.

Cox noted that some people felt uncomfortable about the relationship between Take Hold and the Upper Room.

“It took a while for people to warm up to going to a punk show connected with a church," Cox said. "The venue is not a funnel for the church. I'm more interested in promoting inclusivity, a place for all ages to create."

A safe haven

When he first started booking for the Upper Room, Venue Coordinator Micah Hill found many punk and metal bands. These shows attracted local hardcore crews, devoted groups of concertgoers who enjoyed rough-housing.

“There’s been some crowd surfing,” Hill said. “A couple of nose bleeds, black eyes. A few kids getting kicked in the face. Some guy screaming 'Hail Satan!' People know what they’re getting into.”

The Upper Room's second Venue Coordinator Luke Dean added indie rock bands and singer-songwriters. Dean wanted to give new artists the opportunity to practice, regardless of their level of experience.

“In DIT venues, you see a lot of bands get hyped, but disappear quickly,” Dean said. “It's cool that you might find a band before they make it big."

Instead of choosing a headliner for his bills, Dean mixes touring bands with local bands. An average bill features anywhere between four to eight bands to ensure that many artists get a chance to play.

Audience members come to shows early and stay late, rather than popping in to see a single band. They hang out, skate, and chat about their favorite moments between sets. There is no cut off time, so no one worries about load-in staff booting them out.

“We run on punk time,” Dean said. “It feels more like a community than production."

Dean does not mind if shows bring in small crowds of fifteen to fifty people or run at a loss. Turning a profit was never the point of the Upper Room.

“Venues like Pyramid Scheme are great, but they’re businesses,” Dean said. “We’re a safe haven.”

Hot then cold

The Upper Room left the Heartside Neighborhood during the spring of 2016. Cox decided it was time for a change when he received noise complaints, and shows outgrew the capacity of a nearby parking lot.

In recent years, Division Avenue lost four other venues. The Dirty Hippie and Skelletones shut down, while the Mixtape and the Division Avenue Arts Collective moved.

Private house shows filled the gap left by the absence of these established venues, but frequent run-ins with cops and the presence of drugs and alcohol have made house shows risky for young artists.

Cox would like the Upper Room to remain open and accessible, and shows no signs of stopping. Over 750 attendees showed up to see 75 bands play at the latest Take Hold Fest.

"Grand Rapid's music scene is hot then cold," Dean said. "But we will keep carrying the torch." 

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