When Bonerama struts onstage with its four-trombone frontline, you can guess it’s not quite like any rock ’n’ roll band you’ve seen. When they tear into some vintage New Orleans funk, there’s no questioning from which city these guys hail. And when those ‘bones start ripping into Hendrix and Led Zeppelin licks, all stylistic bets are off.
Even in a city that doesn’t play by the rules, New Orleans’ Bonerama is something different. They’re not a traditional brass band, but they’ve got brass to spare—even with no trumpets or saxes in sight. They can evoke vintage funk, classic rock and free improvisation in the same set; maybe even the same song. Bonerama has been repeatedly recognized by Rolling Stone, hailed as “the ultimate in brass balls” (2005) and praised for their “…crushing ensemble riffing, human-feedback shrieks and wah-wah growls” (2007). Bonerama carries the brass-band concept to places unknown; what other brass band could snag an honor for “Best Rock Band” (Big Easy Awards 2007)? As cofounder Mark Mullins puts it, “We thought we could expand what a New Orleans brass band could do. Bands like Dirty Dozen started the ‘anything goes’ concept, bringing in the guitars and the drumkit and using the sousaphone like a bass guitar. We thought we could push things a little further.”
New Orleans’ fertile club scene was directly responsible for Bonerama getting together. Trombonists Mullins and Craig Klein were both members of Harry Connick’s band, where they’d been since 1990. Both were looking to supplement this gig with something a little less structured. “Harry sets the bar pretty high, and you have to play it the same way every night for everyone to follow.”
The big chance came in the summer of ’98, when Mullins had a weekly residency at Tipitina’s in the French Quarter. The club was then turning weekly slots over to some of the city’s favorite musicians, including Allen Toussaint and Cyril Neville; Mullins got charge of Wednesdays. Word got out one week that he and Klein were staging their trombone super-session and everybody they knew wanted to get involved. “It seemed that half the trombone players in town showed up,” Klein recalls. “At the end of the night we had them all onstage, maybe fifteen trombones at once. It sounded like a freight train; a big wall of sound coming right at you.”
The players in the lineup all add to Bonerama’s diverse blend: Rick Trolsen was one of the first to answer the call for trombonists at Tipitina’s. A New Jersey native who grew up on hippie communes, he first saw New Orleans when the Navy shipped him there; he soon resolved to get out of the Navy and into music full-time. New Orleans native Steve Suter is a classically-trained player and a former member of the Louisiana Philharmonic. A key member of the early lineup was bass trombone player Brian O’Neill. A few years older than his bandmates, O’Neill had toured with R&B legend Wayne Cochran and his CC Riders. “He could do all the stuff that you’re not supposed to be able to do on a trombone,” Mullins says.
Sousaphone player Matt Perrine adds the bassline to Bonerama’s sound and an additional voice to the songwriting. Matt has played with everyone from the New Orleans’ Nightcrawlers brass band to the alternative rock trio the Tin Men. Guitarist Bert Cotton learned his chops at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then came to New Orleans to immerse himself in funk. “He can fill out the chords harmonically, which is one thing that makes us different from a traditional brass band sound,” Klein says. Currently, drummer Eric Bolivar (who played Latin music in New York before joining Anders Osborne’s band in New Orleans) is tag-teaming with Terence Higgins, legendary drummer of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Along with his jazz connections, Mullins is Bonerama’s resident rock ’n’ roller: It was Mullins who instigated the offbeat classic-rock covers that have become a band tradition. Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” was the first nugget to get the treatment and songs by Hendrix, Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Allman Brothers Band have since appeared in their set right alongside the funk and jazz-flavored numbers. “There’s definitely something about the guitar and the trombone that are related,” Mullins figures. “You compare the fretboard to the slide; there’s a lot of similarity there.” Indeed, the sounds Mullins makes by playing through a guitar amp and wah-wah pedal may explain why he’s named Jimi Hendrix as one of his favorite trombonists. “It’s great to grab people with the rock songs, and then turn them on to some New Orleans music at the same time,” Klein says.
The buzz on Bonerama grew with hometown acclaim (with the band winning numerous OffBeat Magazine Awards; and Mullins regularly topping Offbeat’s trombone category), lots of roadwork, and a pair of live albums—the first recorded close to home at the Old Point in Algiers; the second on tour in New York. The Boston Herald called them a “bonehead’s dream”; the Vail (CO) Daily noted that “the sound is fat and wet; sometimes downright lusty.” As hometown music zine Offbeat put it, “That nerdy kid in the band room with the trombone just might have the last laugh after all.”
Since live performance is what Bonerama is all about, it’s no coincidence that their third album, Bringing It Home, is also their third consecutive live disc. It also testifies to the amount of tightening-up the band’s done in recent years. Joining another stack of Bonerama originals are covers ranging from the Meters and George Porter Jr. to the Beatles (two from the White Album, no less) to Thelonious Monk. And when they take on Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” – with trombones doing the familiar backing vocals along with the big guitar riff – you can practically hear the audience’s jaws dropping.
Opening the disc is the high-stepping original “Bayou Betty,” which recently got some extra mileage: Bonerama were the house band for the all-star Comic Relief benefit in Las Vegas in November 2006 and played that tune as the likes of Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg took the stage. Another memorable show happened the same month back at Tipitina’s, when the Future of Music Coalition sponsored a night to benefit the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. Not only did Bonerama play alongside the likes of Steve Earle, Mike Mills (R.E.M.) and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), but also behind Tony Clifton - the international lounge lizard created by Andy Kaufman, making one of his first appearances (courtesy of Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s partner and Comic Relief founder) since rising from the dead.
The band has lately survived some harder times as well. They were dealt a shock in December 2005 when band member Brian O’Neill passed away from a sudden heart attack while playing a solo piano gig. “He’s not the kind of guy you can replace,” says Mullins. “Nobody could do what he could. After dealing with our own grief, we had to face the question of what it meant to us as a band.” Original trombonist Rick Trolsen wound up rejoining the band; so a lot of O’Neill’s spirit – along with his distinctive parts – is still present.
In case anyone needs more proof, the festive vibe of the new CD gives evidence that the spirit of New Orleans music is still going strong. “The music came back to town quicker than most anything else did,” notes Mullins. “Things look better now than I thought they ever could after the storm happened, that’s for sure.”