Anyone who has lived in the Fort for a decent stretch knows the Main Street bridge and that ever so slight lift you get when you crest its tiny hill just over the river – a feeling in the stomach and in the head, a sense that you’re passing over and into a unique portal as it were. Trust that odd feeling and embrace the wave because you are. What other one-mile span of asphalt offers the kind of variety that you find here? From outlaw biker watering holes to the finest seafood in town; from arguably the grittiest “Irish” bar in town guised as an “Italian Pub” to everything the adventurer in you needs to tackle the wilderness of Indiana, be it in a lightweight kayak or in a pair of rugged hiking boots.
While all of the aforementioned can be found on your right (if you’re driving west, the only direction where you experience the particulars I described in my opening lines) there is something on your left just past the bridge that is not to be missed: a stretched out, squatty, off-yellow building that suggests a bunker – a bar called Skeletunes. Yes, that bar. Formerly the River, then the Berlin, the building is a legendary watering hole that has been around for decades.
While I had been to the Berlin on many occasions over the past few years, I had not been to the newly overhauled Skeletunes until mid-November, just shortly after it had its grand opening. Owner Lee Shockley and freshly appointed manager Jeremy Wysong got together sometime in late summer and talked shop – specifically the kind of shop related to all things makeover. And while they didn’t hire some acerbic jerk with a camera crew to come in and yell at them until they got it right, they did spend considerable time together tossing ideas back and forth on what, exactly, they wanted to see. Wysong, fresh from years at the Brass Rail, had some concrete ideas and pulled no punches in asking Shockley for the keys to all the doors. Shockley agreed and the work began.
While the Berlin had been known for years as primarily, though not exclusively, a “metal” bar Skeletunes is “down for whatever,” and I witnessed this in grand fashion on my first visit in October. A bluegrass band from Pennsylvania stopping through town is not unusual. But a bluegrass band that actually sounds like a bluegrass band is. The Jakobs Ferry Stragglers took the stage and dropped more jaws than the Pope at an atheist convention. Trust me. I’ve seen my share of “string bands” on local stages over the past six or so years. None of them brought the musicianship, harmonies and all-around performance that this outfit did. The 20 or so people there can attest. When the band comes through again to Skeletunes in April, I will be doing my best to get more people out.
There were other jaw-dropping or at least heard-turning things to see on this night – the fruits of labor as it were. Gone were the old cramped booths that once lined the wall across from the bar. In their place were simple, classic, white-topped diner-style tables with no-frills chairs, the kind that let you can sit comfortably and talk for hours over a pitcher, but not so cushy that you will miss an entire show at the back of the bar so you can stay in them. Freshly painted walls, newly hung, large, spotless mirrors behind the bar, a border of vinyl records above the bar, lights – lots and lots of small Christmasy lights, red mostly – and show posters, not just flyers. Actual posters. Everywhere. Many of them dedicated to metal bands and most done in a similar metal style a la Derek Riggs (think Iron Maiden). Metal still lives here at Skeletunes that is for sure.
Just a few short weeks later I was back. Back to take more notes, and on this particular night to catch Nashville’s hottest rockabilly band, Hillbilly Casino. The boys tore up a newly expanded stage while breaking in a set of new Mackie speakers as a delighted and packed crowd took it all in. Speaking of, I took in a couple of pints from the modest 6-handle tap row that consistently features a 50/50 offering of IPAs (Two-Hearted seems to be a regular) to standard lagers like PBR, any of which can be enjoyed from a frosty mug on request. Oh, and there is 1919 root beer on tap as well if you’re in the non-alcohol mood.
My most recent visit was in January for Gypsy’s “Vagabond Ball,” an annual event hosted by one of the bar’s regular tenders, Gypsy Lujin. This fun-loving, bear of a man is a local music fan and supporter who throws this party as an excuse to get all of his favorite bands in one room with all of his favorite people. This year’s lineup featured Fort Wayne legends The Bel Airs, a band that has been playing off and on since Reagan first took office. Still sporting the requisite rockabilly haircuts, cuffed jeans and leather jackets, these seasoned vets sounded as good to my ears as they did in the late 90s when I first saw them. They tore through an impressive 90-minute set of standards with nary a missed beat or bad note.
Drifting back to the bar after their set and talking “state of public education” with guitarist David Todoran, I decided to try a new Skeletunes feature: pork tacos. The seasoned meat is kept in the same upright cooler as the beer and is served warmed in a small toaster oven and garnished with cilantro and onion only. It took me about four of these at only a $1.50 to decide that I was in heaven.
So with a hum and ring in my ears, a cold beer in hand, and the exquisite after taste of raw onion and cilantro on my tongue, I took it all in. I gave a high-five to Mr. Wysong and congratulated him on some very fine work. I also noticed one other thing. The famous “banned” list, written in permanent marker on a torn-off piece of cardboard was no longer above the bar. A fresh start indeed.