New Orleans, always part of the tidal flow of American music, has subtly reintroduced itself into the current. Just as in the early twentieth century, when the city’s sonic innovators dispersed around the world to create the international language of jazz, and during the post–WWII years when New Orleans was the incubator for rock ’n’ roll, it all happened without (maybe even because of) the presence of a music industry infrastructure. The music was left to the musicians.
Today the music industry has returned to the grassroots, where New Orleans musicians have always thrived. So it is that one of the signature bands of the new era, Bonerama, has dropped its best album on the city’s most important indie label, Basin Street Records.
When Bonerama was formed in 1998 by trombonists Craig Klein and Mark Mullins, the band resisted categorization. With a trombone front line and Matt Perrine’s tuba anchoring the rhythm section, some folks called the group a brass band. Mullins, a master of both acoustic and amplified trombone, insisted it was a rock band, and covers of Hendrix and Black Sabbath supported that claim. Klein’s inspiration for the group came from watching the incredible Salsa Meets Jazz jam sessions at New York’s Village Gate during the ’80s. And like so many other New Orleans musical institutions, Bonerama was solidly grounded in Meters-style funk.
This kind of stylistic mashup fits neatly into New Century music. Trombone Shorty, who formed his Orleans Avenue band eight years after Bonerama started and plotted a similar course, even coined a name for the style: “Supafunkrock.” Like Shorty’s terrific band, Bonerama is all about the collective sound, and Hot Like Fire is a terse, closely knit framework of high intensity compositions played with clockwork precision and emotional depth. Mullins, Klein and Greg Hicks form a massive trombone front line with Perrine, guitarist Bert Cotton and drummer Walt Lundy laying down the beats. The pop cover this time is Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” among the album’s most ambitious arrangements (by Mullins); and the group gives a nod to Allen Toussaint on the gorgeous “Basic Lady.” Mullins wrote and arranged two songs, Klein checks in with the title tune and the great “Mr. Okra,” but the icing on the cake comes from three masterful pieces written and arranged by Perrine: “Bad Dog,” “Sun Lion” and “Christiana.”
There’s no mistaking that it’s New Orleans’ own Bonerama working Hot Like Fire’s opening cut, “Bad Dog.” The trombone-led band with founders Mark Mullins and Craig Klein plus Greg Hicks boasts a sound distinctly its own that is exemplified on the tune written and arranged by the very capable sousaphone and electric bass man Matt Perrine. That there are three trombones upfront obviously put the group, formed in 1998, in a class of its own. Beyond that, however, is the musicians’ broad range of knowledge, which allows the ensemble to power up and funk out while remaining tightly knit on a number of sophisticated arrangements.
Bonerama knows there’s a time to mellow out and add some vocals, as they do on another Perrine composition, the reggae and doo-wop tinged “Sun Lion.” It sets itself apart as each of the band members can be heard and enjoyed individually. Alex “A.J.” Hall, the power drummer of “Bad Dog,” applies a lighter touch here and the electrifying Bert Cotton on guitar displays his finesse.
Bonerama brings a lot of humor both lyrically and musically to their tunes, as heard on “Mr. Okra” and “Happy,” a song that lives up to its title. Also clever was the group’s opening Allen Toussaint’s “Basic Lady” with a few bars of his giant hit “Java,” with the trombone trio taking the place of Al Hirt’s trumpet. Pianist Mike Lemmler comes in for this well-executed, in the spirit, somewhat countrified cover.
Hot Like Fire is Bonerama’s first release on the local Basin Street Records and was produced by Mullins, Klein and Tracey Freeman, all of whom have deep knowledge of the city’s sound. On the horn-filled and funky album, Bonerama all but screams, “This is who we are and we’re from New Orleans.”