For years, Bonerama has proven to be a taxonomic nightmare. What is it? The problem arises most immediately when the magazines in town try to award year-end awards and have to decide what category it goes in. Funk band? Rock band? One OffBeat writer was aghast to see Bonerama considered a contender for best brass band in last year’s Best of the Beat nominations.
Still, deciding what Bonerama is isn’t a purely academic exercise. How we enjoy something depends on what it is, and each genre has its own values that affect how we evaluate what we hear. Joni Mitchell lyrics in a heavy metal song would produce bad metal, and an Ornette Coleman sax solo on a Pussycat Dolls track would produce bad pop, no matter how remarkable Mitchell and Coleman are at what they do. Genre-busting artists are intriguing because they step outside of conventional boxes, but there’s a very good reason by second-hand stores and delete bins are full of genre-busting CDs.
So based on the evidence of Bringing It Home, what is Bonerama? Brass band? Maybe. It fundamentally has similar instrumentation to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band—horns, electric guitar, kit drummer, with only the horn composition different. Purists can say we want the brass repertoire from brass bands and by that measure, Bonerama isn’t a brass band. That’s a pretty limited definition, though. If we value the interplay of the horns, then Bonerama could easily be considered a brass band, though the interplay isn’t as free-swinging as it is in Rebirth or the Hot 8.
Rock band? Despite the band’s Big Easy Award naming it the best one of last year, no. First, there are only two rock songs among the album’s 13 songs, Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Overall, rock covers make up a small-but-memorable portion of the band’s songbook—something that should cause the band a little consternation because they seem to cast a long shadow over everything else the band has recorded. Beyond that, rock is about heaviness—which Bonerama delivers—and the communal moment of a chorus people can come together and sing on, which it rarely delivers, being largely instrumental.
Funk? Now we’re getting somewhere. Monk’s “Epistrophy” has go-go’s wide, mid-tempo groove, even as the horns are going off. George Porter, Jr.’s “By Athenish” is a body mover, and that’s what funk is about. And even in the classic rock covers, drummers Stanton Moore and Eric Bolivar are finding the groove and moving asses.
It’s to the band’s credit that it has provoked members of the city’s music community to debate this question passionately—it means Bonerama has made an impression, and it’s one of the few bands to record live every time and make it work. On Bringing It Home, the band sounds more coherent, more diverse (if you can be those two things at one time) and more adventurous than ever.