While it may have seemed like a crazy concept when first conceived by trombonists Craig Klein and Mark Mullins, the idea of a band led by four trombonists isn’t so far-fetched in a city as wild as New Orleans. Mullins and Klein, two trombonists with Harry Connick Jr.’s Orchestra, came up with the idea for their band, Bonearama, in the mid-1990s, when they were spending more time off the road from Connick’s tour than they were on the road with him. They finally had just the right lineup for the seven-member group by 1998. That year, Bonearama performed their first few shows in New Orleans and nearby Algiers.
The band’s music is spirited and uplifting, like the tune “Bayou Betty,” the opening number on their current release, “Bringing It Home.” In addition to originals the album also includes lively cover versions of familiar classic rock tunes, like the Beatles’ “Yer Blues,” “Helter Skelter,” Led Zeppelin’s “Ocean,” and bebop jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophe.”
They perform on Sunday, June 1, at the Crawfish Boil music festival in Sussex County, NJ. At their live shows, Bonearama offers up covers of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and “War Pigs,” as well as Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” and other familiar FM radio classic rock staples.
“The classic rock we do was all music we loved anyway, so the idea was to use the trombone as our voice for anything that came to mind,” Mullins, a New Brunswick, NJ, native, says in a phone interview from his New Orleans home. He says they saw themselves as continuing in the tradition of great modern day brass bands from New Orleans like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band.
Bonearama hasn’t strayed very far from that ideal since 1998, and fortunately, musically sophisticated audiences around the U.S. have caught on. For example, the band worked up a trombone-heavy — well, everything they do is trombone heavy — version of Edgar Winter’s classic rock instrumental, “Frankenstein,” for their first few shows in the Crescent City. It went over well with audiences there and the band played gigs in that area for about five years. By late 2002 they all felt they were ready to get out on the road. Mullins, 40, served as the business manager for the band for the first five or six years until they picked up a booking agency and a management company. Now, they tour the U.S. and Canada. In late May, they were in Sao Paulo, Brazil for the first time.
The band is celebrating 10th anniversary this year, “but we haven’t blown our horn about it too much,” Mullins says, ignoring the pun, because other New Orleans-based bands like the Radiators and the Neville Brothers have been around for 25 and 30 years. The band has released three critically acclaimed albums on their own label, and they still respond directly to E-mails to their website, www.Bonearama.net.
Mullins was born on Christmas Day, 1967 at St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick, and spent his first five years in that city before his father, an Army drill sergeant, moved the family back home to New Orleans. Mullins grew up in Jefferson Parish in New Orleans and graduated from Loyola University, “uptown,” with a degree in music performance in 1990.
His father worked as a trim carpenter after leaving the Army. His mother, from New Jersey, worked at the FNJ Bank in downtown New Brunswick in the late 1960s and then was a housewife once the family moved to New Orleans. “I don’t know if I would have had the inclination to continue with trombone if I didn’t have the inspiration from as many different sources as we do here,” Mullins says.
“When you think of a band of this size with four trombones, it’s not exactly a business model for success. Now, the band is really in a special place,” he says, noting they appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” in December. That was a good break, and the band members have been able to rest easier in between tours knowing they have good management and a booking agency team in place.
Bonearama’s live shows are noisy affairs, as one would expect of a band with four trombones that also includes sousaphone player Matt Perine, drummer Eric Bolivar, guitarist Bert Cotton, Klein and Mullins on trombones, and also Steve Suter and Greg Hicks — the band’s newest member — on trombone. Their other former trombonist, Rick Trolsen, left the band on amicable terms, Mullins says. “He just wanted to stay home in New Orleans more.”
As lead singer and the one who works closely with Klein to do most of the band’s arrangements, Mullins performs with a rack of foot pedals on stage, to offer a variety of musical effects, the same as any rock guitarist would. “It’s basically a guitar rig, and I have some harmonizers and a wireless microphone that drives the rig independently,” he says of his wah-wah pedal and a range of other sonically startling effects he is able to render on his trombone.
Even though they don’t consider themselves a part of it, Bonearama has been adopted by some in the burgeoning “jam band” scene and as a consequence, they have found themselves headlining at jam-oriented festivals in Colorado and California, as well as up and down the East Coast. After all, most jam band music is an extension of blues and jazz, with its emphasis on long, extended solos by the musicians.
“If we’re able to help bring jam band music back to New Orleans like it was in the early 1900s, then, hey, that’s a good thing,” Mullins says.
Crawfish Boil attendees who like New Orleans music but haven’t seen Bonearama, “are going to hear some off-the-wall brass band music that’s presented unlike any that they may have heard before. We hope it’s fun and honest and in-your-face,” says Mullins.
Mullins adds that the realm of music the band is creating now is much wider and all-encompassing than 10 years ago. “Everybody in the band is basically a very talented writer, and everyone’s got something to say, so now it’s gotten to a point where everyone is contributing something. The circle of music we’re doing is just getting larger and larger,” he says. “It can be a genre classification nightmare, but basically we’re just trying to keep moving forward.
“As you can imagine, it’s seven guys who are very talented so there’s no shortage of opinions as to where it can go,” Mullins continues, “but the guys are good enough to give me the illusion that I’m making the final call. And the older I get the more I can swallow the fact how nice it is to have everybody contributing something.
“We’ve been together for a long time and try to drive all over the map without going into the ditch or getting into a wreck.”
Bonearama, at the 19th Annual Crawfish Boil music festival, Sunday, June 1, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sussex County Fairgrounds, Augusta, NJ. The festival takes place on Friday through Sunday, May 30 to June 1. Other performers include Tab Benoit, the Funky Meters, Mitch Woods and the Rocket 88s, Guitar Shorty, Little Freddie King, Donna the Buffalo, Allen Toussaint, Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys, Railroad Earth, and the Lee Boys. www.crawfishfest.com.