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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2019

Friends, Family Gather to Remember Fallen Musician

Punchin' Judy members Rick Morrell, left, and Rondal Millhorn play outside the Paramount Center for the Arts prior to the Jef Roberts Memorial Concert on April 29, 2010. (Photo by Earl Neikirk | Bristol Herald Courier)
Punchin' Judy members Rick Morrell, left, and Rondal Millhorn play outside the Paramount Center for the Arts prior to the Jef Roberts Memorial Concert on April 29, 2010. (Photo by Earl Neikirk | Bristol Herald Courier)

Memorial Service benefits Spay-Neuter Fund


*** Published Friday, April 30 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

BRISTOL, Tenn. In downtown Bristol Thursday night, two pictures of a happy little boy brightened the photo-strewn window of Holly Help on 6th Street. The boy held a guitar in one photo and there was a piano with him in the other.

That little boy was Jef Roberts.

"He wanted a guitar and a piano for Christmas," said Roberts' aunt, Barbara Niemczak. "He got them. He looks like Elvis Presley with that guitar in his little hands."

Meanwhile, on State Street, Rick Morrell and Rondal Millhorn of Roberts' band, Punchin' Judy, greeted with music those entering the Paramount Center for the Jef Roberts Memorial Concert.

Roberts died on March 1, 2009, a week after an altercation outside a downtown Bristol bar and restaurant.

The show served as a benefit for Holly Help Spay-Neuter Fund for Animals, based in Bristol, Tenn..

"I [wanted] the concert to reflect Jef's love of music and Jef's love of animals," said Niemczak, who organized the show. "He was a crusader. He was the first to help right a wrong when he saw a need. So I wanted to do something in his name."

Singer-songwriter Will Hoag headlined, preceded by the razor blades and blues rocker Joanne Shaw Taylor.

But the evening's most poignant moment came during the show's opening. Steve Gilbert, a longtime friend of Roberts' and formerly of the band, Ablazing Grace, opened with his song, "Quiet on 7th." Gilbert wrote the song about Roberts.

"I'll never forget you brother," Gilbert sang with passion as the crowd of about 200 soaked it in. "You may be gone my friend, but you'll always be around."

There was a standing ovation.

The right-on ode recalled Roberts' many days and nights while working and playing music in various venues on 7th Street, namely the now closed Ireson's Pub, where Roberts served as the jack of many trades.

That included being a kindhearted soul to many musicians such as Gilbert.

"I went over to 7th to Ireson's Pub one night," Gilbert said in the alley adjacent to the Paramount before the show. "I had been talking to him about doing a solo thing."

A heavy metal band was to have played that night, Roberts told Gilbert, but they didn't show up.

"He said, "go get your guitar,'" Gilbert said. "I was nervous because I had never done a solo singing thing on stage."

Then, the metal band arrived but they didn't play that night.

"I didn't find that out until later, but he let me play," Gilbert said.

So were the ways of Jef Roberts, Gilbert and a slew of his friends and family said Thursday night.

"He was a tireless supporter of live music downtown," Niemczak said. "He was a part of so many bands. At one point, he told me that he was in four bands at one time."

The most prominent of those bands was Punchin' Judy. Roberts co-founded the band more than 20 years ago.

"Jef always wanted to play the Paramount," Niemczak said. "So, Punchin' Judy will play the Paramount."

Indeed they did.

Cranked with a crunching sound, lead singer Patrick Malone channeled Lemmy Kilmister as Punchin' Judy pummeled Motorhead's heavy metal masterpiece "Ace of Spades."

Rick Morrell, wearing an Oakland Raiders jersey and hat, whipped guitar licks as if gassed on rocket fuel. Motorhead? More like motors ablaze.

After Punchin' Judy followed with the jolting "Believe," Rondal Millhorn replaced Malone. Punchin' Judy punctuated their all-too-brief segment with a fitting close for their fallen friend. Morrell tossed his Raiders cap, assumed the position at his microphone, black guitar in hand, and ignited AC/DC's manic classic "Let There Be Rock."

It was an electrifying first Paramount performance by the legendary local rockers.

"It (was) a night of celebration," Niemczak said. "Jef would be totally amazed."