By SHANNON WATKINS
A lot of good music was born in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, but not all bands that play it have such earthy origins. At least one, in fact, comes from downtown Radford.
The Java Brothers formed from a core group of regular musicians at the Coffee Mill, former home of Radford’s Monday night bluegrass jam. They named themselves in jesting tribute to the place, though after the Coffee Mill closed, the jam moved and is now located at the River City Grill.
Relocating seemed to be the theme Friday night; they were slated to play in Jackson Park, but owing to the weather moved to the Pulaski Theatre.
“We were originally scheduled to play in the park,” joked fiddler Ralph Berrier Jr., “but the slightest possibility that it might rain—the threat that it might rain, in this drought-like summer…”
The Java Brothers did two sets with a short break in between. Their style onstage was relaxed, appropriately enough for musicians who met in the casual atmosphere of a jam, but led to a tight sound. While Berrier’s fiddle, Wayne Frye’s guitar, Joe Abercrombie’s banjo and Chris Burgoyne’s mandolin produced an ear-catching sound that evoked the hills, hollers and highways, Doug Capobianco’s bass gave them a steady rolling rhythm to work from and Bill Adams’ pedal steel provided plenty of flash and style.
They were popular with the crowd who filled most of the theater’s lower level seats, with a handful repeatedly dancing in front of the stage to the faster numbers. CDs were also on sale, as Frye told the crowd to merriment, “Ten dollars each, or two for $25.”
The first set had old standards like “Catfish John,” “Wait a Minute” and Bob Dylan’s “Only a Hobo.” Most of the lead vocals throughout both sets went to either Berrier or Frye; especially rousing were Frye’s rendition of “Highway 40 Blues” and Berrier’s of “Steam Powered Aereoplane.”
After the break, they took the stage again wearing cowboy hats, as their even more playful alter egos, the Dr. Pepper All-Stars. The name is a tribute to Berrier’s grandfather and great uncle, who played in a radio band in Roanoke in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and frequently participated in commercials for Dr. Pepper, described in his book “If Trouble Don’t Kill Me.”
During this portion, the audience took particular pleasure in “Get Along Home Cindy” and a strutting “Milk Cow Blues” that had everyone clapping in time. Near the end of the All Stars segment, the audience chimed in along with Berrier on an old ad slogan, saying, “Remember, folks—to enjoy life more, drink Dr. Pepper at ten, two and four!”
Out of All-Stars mode, the band played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Abercrombie singing a rare but welcome lead, “Rocky Top” and “Rich Memories from Poor Valley.” An original written by Frye, he said of it, “That’s a song about my memories.” The lyrics included the sentimental words, “My grandparents they aren’t with us now/To a better life have both gone/But whenever my family gathers/It’s feels just like their Poor Valley home.”
After the almost obligatory (but well-handled) “Wagon Wheel” and one other song, the Brothers made to leave the stage, but were called back for an encore, to cries of “One more!” and one wag’s request, “Three more!”
“Did you say ‘three more’ or ‘Free Bird’?” joked Frye, before the band played another handful of songs, including “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and Burgoyne’s touching version of “With the Small Exception of Me.”
After the show, Burgoyne said of it, “I love it. It was a great audience and a great theater.”
For more information on the Java Brothers, visit their page on Facebook. The Monday night bluegrass jam in Radford is held from 7–10 p.m. at the River City Grill, 103 Third Ave; for more information call (540) 629-2120.