New Orleans-based Bonerama aren't some sort of Southern burlesque troupe or pornographic theatrical project. Together for nine years, the musical ensemble feature a four-trombone frontline and pull from a wild mix of musical influences, delivering high-energy renditions of all sorts of unpredictably funky jive. The heart and groove of it draw directly from their hometown's brassy heritage.
"We were very influenced by the New Orleans brass band tradition," says Mark Mullins, 39, who co-founded the group with fellow 'boner Craig Klein.
Mullins and Klein were both members of Harry Connick's band, where they'd been since 1990. "We wanted to do that and we wanted to do a lot more than that as well. We put it together for fun, something to do in our off-time. There are so many great trombone players in New Orleans. We called a bunch of our buddies and put it together one night at [New Orleans club] Tipitina's. From the very first song, we could sense something magical — not just from playing with a different instrumentation, but from the crowd's reaction, which was inspiring as well. It slowly snowballed and we finally realized we could take it out of New Orleans and on the road."
The band hit the major cities and college towns pretty heavily over the last few years, hitting many of the Home Grown Network and jam band hot spots. Audiences reacted to the grooves and the authentic funk rhythms — and dug deep into the powerful brass sound at the forefront.
They've always worked with a full rhythm section. The current Bonerama cast includes Mullin, Klein, Steve Suter and Rick Trolsen in the trombone frontline, sousaphone player Matt Perrine (handling the bass lines), electric guitarist Bert Cotton, and drummer Eric Bolivar.
"The idea was always to keep it open," Mullins says. "Everything was fair game, musically. We grew up listening to brass bands like Dirty Dozen, Olympia, and Preservation Hall. What the Dirty Dozen did to change the sound of the traditional brass band was pretty inspiring,. We want to change the way people think about the trombone, but we also want to change the way New Orleans is heard and presented. We want to push limits just a little bit further."
Their performances at their hometown's annual Jazz Fests caused a stir and their last Charleston gig (during February's Lowcountry Blues Festival) grabbed hold of the Pour House audience, inspiring the club to book a return gig.
Last September, they recorded several live shows at Tipitina's for the production of their third consecutive live disc album, Bringing It Home. The tunes include a handful of complex Bonerama originals and covers ranging from the Meters and George Porter Jr. to the Beatles, Thelonious Monk, Led Zeppelin (their slinky rendition of Zep's "The Ocean" is a bright highlight). Guest drummer Stanton Moore (of Galactic) kept time on the traps on a few tunes, too.
"The grassroots effort has been tremendous," says Mullins. "We're pretty much out here on our own with no record label. The word-of-mouth thing has been great. People are coming out and it's very encouraging."
Those who wonder how four guys playing the same type of horn can produce such a wide range of brass sounds might be surprised by the band's huge sound. How do four lead 'bones handle it?
"The answer lies within the dynamic range of the trombone itself, which has a very wide range," says Mullins. "That, combined with the quality of the players we have, enables us to have a pretty big palate. Some things are arranged with some lead 'vocal' parts on top while someone inside could do a second guitar or keyboard part, and someone else on the bottom doing a counterpoint to that or the bass line. Then, it's always fun to switch the channel and have everyone play balls-to-the-wall in unison, which is like a big Mack truck coming at ya!"