At 10, the kids’ music trio is still making fans young and old.
By Buzz McClain • Photography By Erick Gibson
Among the fans waiting for the musicians to take the stage is a boy with a ukulele in his hands. He looks determined not to miss the band’s imminent entrance as he bounces in place in a spot in front of where the guitar player will be.
Next to him is a girl in a frilly satin and tulle princess dress—in fact, there are several princesses in attendance, and they swirl around on the floor in front of the stage, bumping into moms and dads who are sitting on the floor and struggling not to spill juice boxes. Another girl, wearing a tiara, has a doll in a white dress that she “walks” across the front of the stage for reasons known only to her.
The clearing in front of the stage quickly becomes clogged with 3-foot-tall 3-year-olds who will use the area as a pogo-dancing mosh pit when the music starts. Their parents, the ones not sprawled on the floor picnic-style, are in chairs just behind the dance floor, behaving as if this were a “normal” concert. Normal, except for those juice boxes.
Jammin’ Java is living up to the “jammin’” part of the name, particularly in the front. The Vienna venue is filled near capacity; anticipation for the performance is high. And it’s not even 10:30 in the morning on this Friday. Fortunately for the parents, the place is also living up to the “java” part of the name, and the freshly brewed coffee hits the spot.
This is the way it is and has been for 10 years for the band known as Rocknoceros—early shows with lots of fans accompanied by lots of parents. In an hour, when it’s still not even lunchtime for those working in nearby offices, the trio of musicians with deep roots in Northern Virginia will have revved up the crowd with a fast-paced set of adventurously ambitious offerings, autographed their wrists with hand stamps and sent them home for nap time.
Not a bad day’s work.
Most of these kids have seen the band before and will be back next week, and many of the first-timers will be back again as well if an exit poll of their parental escorts is to be believed. Kids like repetition—how many times have you put “Frozen” in the DVD player this year?—and they like what they like without having the vocabulary to explain why they like it.
But a parent knows when something affects or touches their child in a meaningful way, good or bad. Four years ago and without knowing it, Rocknoceros profoundly affected a young fan, and a childhood took an unexpected turn. If that kid with the ukulele in the front row is an indication, it could happen again.
Rocknoceros might never have been born if not for the morning children’s shows at Jammin’ Java, which is a coffee cafe by day and a popular rock club by night. The three band members might still have their day jobs if David Cotton hadn’t accompanied his then 3- and 1-year-old sons to see one of the club’s daytime “Tot Rock” shows in 2005.
“It was one dude with a guitar,” Cotton says, and as he surveyed the packed and happy house that morning, lightning struck. “That was the aha moment. I saw you could do this and play your own music and make a living.”
Daniel Brindley, one of the Brindley clan that owns the Vienna club, had the idea in the mid-2000s to capitalize on the growing children’s-music trend by creating a go-to place for it, booking kids’ bands sometimes six mornings a week and giving parents, nannies and their charges something to do after breakfast and before nap time. The idea worked, and the strollers would line up on the sidewalk well before the 10:30 a.m. showtime.
Little did Brindley know that a band inspired by his music series would eventually be the most popular act of them all. After seeing one guy with a guitar playing to a packed house, Cotton, who had recently stopped teaching middle school to be the at-home dad for his young family, enlisted the help of Patrick Robert Williams, a guitar-playing classmate from Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, to compose a few kids’ songs.
They worked up some lyrics and tunes rooted in the melodic structures of their favorite band, The Beatles, and followed their instincts. After trying them out live, they discovered they could make babies dance and sing, make the moms happy and please the venue owners while enjoying themselves and making money at the same time.
Eventually they called on another childhood friend and Robinson grad, Marc Capponi—in fact, all three attended James Madison University together as well—who added his unusual rig of an electric keyboard mounted on a kick bass drum and a kick snare drum, which he plays in his stocking feet, to Cotton’s percussion and whistles and Williams’ guitars and banjo.
Rocknoceros was born, but identities changed at birth.
• Cotton, 44, became Coach Cotton, dressed for the sports field in shorts, knee socks and an Adidas pullover.
• Williams, 43, became Williebob, outfitted in blue jean overalls, cowboy boots, a vintage straw hat and shoulder-length hair.
• Capponi, 44, became Boogie Woogie Bennie, dapper in a vest and pink-and-black striped hat.
“The nicknames grew from an organic place,” Coach Cotton says, which explains how well they fit the characters. Besides the names, they also wanted the personae to be “occupation-oriented characters,” says Williebob, who is a “hobbyist gardener” at his home in Washington, D.C. “Coach” comes naturally as well because Cotton still teaches kickboxing at a gym in Fairfax. And Boogie Woogie Bennie, with his vest and hat, is “an old-timey piano player modeled after Fats Waller,” says Capponi.
They call each other their stage names even off stage, not to conceal their real identities or protect some secret life but because it’s more fun.
This June Coach Cotton, Williebob and Boogie Woogie Bennie will celebrate their 10-year anniversary as Rocknoceros, a landmark they will happily celebrate but seemingly never had doubts about reaching. The trio started off fast and shows no signs of slowing down; they’re performing some 220 shows a year including the weekly gig at Jammin’ Java and “tons of annual gigs and school fundraisers,” says Boogie Woogie, making it the full-time job for the three members.
T-shirts, including babydoll-style ones for the moms, and sales of four CDs of their songs, including the whimsically titled collection “The Dark Side of the Moon Bounce,” supplement the income from live performances.
Rocknoceros’ music isn’t kids’ music, although it appeals from toddlers to near-teens in the way something from “Meet the Beatles” might, with bright melodies, tight harmonies and clever turns of phrase. Boogie Woogie says the songs are for “families, not just kids,” and that’s apt. The lyrics refuse to be simplistic, though they are easy, and they tend to be about concepts that take a bit of contemplation to enjoy fully.
“(I Wish We Used) the Metric System” plays up the difficulty of converting measurements to feet, pounds and teaspoons while metric is more logical, and still we don’t use it, leading Boogie Woogie to bemoan in the song, “It’s easy with the metric system, but the other one’s the one we use.” One of their most popular songs, “PINK!,” a former No. 1 on SirusXM’s Kids Place show, celebrates everyone’s favorite hue: “You get it when you mix red and white; used judiciously it looks outta sight!”
Judiciously? Barney was never that polysyllabic.
Many in the audience are the kind of die-hard fans most bands would kill for. “It’s shockingly common to hear from parents that their kids have bedtime routines where they will grab musical instruments and pretend to be Rocknoceros and do a little Rocknoceros concert at bedtime,” says Williebob. “We hear this a lot.”
It’s pointed out by the one fan toting a ukulele on the dance floor.
“That ukulele is no accident,” says Boogie Woogie. “There are several who follow us who bring their ukuleles.”
“Nicholas brought his, remember?” Coach Cotton says. “He was 5 when he first came. Then he would bring a guitar and stand in front of Williebob and play along.”
“He’s in a band now,” says Boogie Woogie. “He’s, like, 10 and playing in a band with teenagers.”
“He’s 8,” corrects Coach Cotton.
In fact, Nicholas Miller was 4 when he first saw Rocknoceros.
After seeing the band the first time, the Ashburn tyke brought a ukulele the next time. After a year of Rocknoceros-ing, he began bringing a half-sized guitar to Rocknoceros gigs at Jammin’ Java and Dulles Town Center.
“We had to always get there early so he could watch them set up and get his position in front of Williebob,” says his mother, Jennifer. “He would stare at Williebob and strum along.” He also asked Williebob questions about his guitar, about why he did this and how do you do that? And Williebob, who was also music-obsessed as a child, patiently answered all the questions.
You know you’ve made a deep impression on a youngster when they turn up at an event dressed like you. Jennifer had patches put onto a pair of blue jean overalls, and with the hat and boots, Nicholas matched his idol at the shows.
Although he tried not to miss performances, life, they say, gets in the way of what we really want to do. So it was with Nicholas when kindergarten reared its head and kept him from the band’s Friday morning gigs. Still, if Jennifer rushed across town and picked him up early, they could make it to a few. First grade at Newton-Lee Elementary really complicated things, so for the last few years Nicholas has only gotten to see special events gigs.
But Nicholas’s fandom, even at age 8 and in the third grade, hasn’t diminished. Last October he began taking guitar lessons at Minton’s Academy of Music in Ashburn, and only then by special dispensation: “Other music schools said they wouldn’t take him until he was at least seven,” Jennifer says. But his teacher at Minton’s, Mr. Jeremy, had been in a band with Williebob, so he was in.
In a month he knew the basic chords on a guitar. “He continues to amaze us with how he’s able to figure out chords,” says his father, A.R. Eventually A.R. made a stage out of wood odds and ends in the basement where Nicholas plays his Squire electric guitar plugged into amplifiers.
That pretend stage has led to a real stage; on occasion, Nicholas performs in an ensemble with other young rock players from music school who happen to be about twice his age.
As for playing Rocknoceros numbers, Nicholas says, “I know some of the songs but not all of the songs. They have, like, four albums. They have so many songs.”
And what does he want to do when he grows up? You had to ask?
“I want to be in a band,” he says.
Does he want to take Williebob’s place in Rocknoceros?
“That’s great to hear,” says Williebob when informed of Nicholas’ intent. “He would make a great Williebob if he wanted the gig.”