You didn't have to be at the Sprint Stage to hear Bonerama's Jazz Fest set this year. With a strong wind blowing across the Fair Grounds, the four-trombone band's version of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" could be heard outside Congo Square.
"We're a loud band," Mark Mullins admits. He points to marks on his lip, the result of blowing hard enough to be heard among the trombones of Craig Klein, Steve Suter and Brian O'Neill as well as Matt Perrine's amplified sousaphone, Bert Cotton's guitar and Chad Gilmore's drums. "We rely so much on hearing ourselves to be able to blend. When things get loud, it can be difficult."
Mullins and Klein are excited to finally have copies of Bonerama's new Live From New York. The album features guests Stanton Moore from Galactic and Fred Wesley, trombone player for the JBs. It also includes a version of "Whipping Post," along with Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" and Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" and "War Pigs." The idea of doing covers dates back almost to the inception of the band, which emerged from Klein wondering what to do when he and Mullins were off the road from their gig in Harry Connick Jr.'s band. They talked about how many great trombone players there are in New Orleans, thought about putting them together, then faced the inevitable question: "What are we going to play?" Klein recalls over coffee. The first cover was a version of the Eagles' "The Long Run," and since, Mullins says, "We try to keep a balance of showing our natural influences and yet playing a few fun songs."
The classic rock covers are more than goofs, though. They go to the core of the trombone-centric nature of the band. "No other instrument relates to a guitar like a trombone does because of the slide," Klein says. "With the trombone, you can get as close as possible to rock guitar stuff." Putting four together, even if one is a bass trombone, results in a sound that shares some of the punch and grit of a distorted Les Paul. Mullins continues, "Open tuning on guitar transfers so nice to a group of trombones."
On the version of "Crosstown Traffic" and "It's Electric," the latter a Mullins solo, he plays his trombone through a wah-wah pedal, furthering the sonic similarity to a guitar. It's a device he's made one of his trademarks, and he agrees laughingly that he plays trombone like a frustrated guitar player.
That rock element, while fun, also speaks to the band's identity. Klein contends the band isn't really a brass band -- "We don't do the brass band repertoire that they do"-- and when Mullins talks about Bonerama, he refers to it as "an all-trombone brass funk rock band." Still, those who think of it as a brass band aren't alone. The Radiators, Galactic, Gov't Mule and Papa Grows Funk have all employed the band as their horn section at one point or another, and the band recognizes that aesthetic ground for them was broken around the country by the Dirty Dozen and ReBirth brass bands.
The years of Mullins and Klein playing with Connick have made adjusting to backing roles easier. Contrasting playing with Connick and Bonerama, Mullins says, "It's a completely different world of things I'm thinking about when I'm approaching the gig. With Harry, everybody has a different role in a big band. Some guys solo a lot; others don't. My role's sort of like a field goal kicker. Just playing lead, it's an execution role, so I'm thinking about playing my part as consistently as I can." On the other hand, with Bonerama he says, "We want to make sure there's a good balance between structure and free."
Being trombone-for-hire has forced Mullins to be conscious of his role in any song. When playing with Better Than Ezra, for instance, "You're contributing to the song." He has worked out parts with Kevin Griffin to fit the songs, just as he has to a lesser extent with Dave Malone and the Radiators. "With the Radiators, it's a little more loose. I'm listening to what's going by and thinking, What's needed here?'"
He also frequently plays with Johnny Vidacovich and George Porter Jr., and those largely improvisational gigs pose a whole different set of challenges. "You can't be inhibited at all about playing the wrong thing or you'll be in a box the whole night," he says. "You can get in the head game once in while worrying about if you should be trying to play something different, and you've got to throw that away because you'll get tangled up in it." For now, he and Klein are enjoying the excitement that accompanies Bonerama and the sense that people are getting it. "In Telluride (Colo.)," Klein says, "A girl comes up and says, 'I'll never make fun of band geeks ever again!' I think that was a compliment."
- "No other instrument relates to a guitar like a trombone does because of the slide," Bonerama's Craig Klein says.