at the Long's Park Amphitheatre,
Lancaster, PA (14 June 2009)
There was a single hit on the drum, and then a trio of trombones -- gleaming in the evening sun -- blasted into action.
A hard-driving rock band by any standard, Bonerama sets itself apart from the norm with its muscular brass front line. The band filled Long's Park with its sound Sunday evening during the second of 13 free concerts in the 47th annual Long's Park Summer Music Series.
The cheerful crowd, conservatively estimated by one official to total more than 5,000 people, may have come out as much for the weather as the music. After what seems like weeks of rain, Sunday evening offered bright sun and mild temperatures; a scattering of ominous-looking black clouds in the skies surrounding the park withheld their threat of rain.
"It's a beautiful night," series director Stella Sexton said with obvious relish.
The band's fresh arrangements owe much to jazz -- which is only fitting, given Bonerama's New Orleans roots. But make no mistake, Bonerama is not to be confused with your typical Dixieland brass. In fact, the band describes its sound as "New Orleans brass funk rock," leaving jazz out of the mix altogether. Fronted by three 'bones -- deftly handled by Greg Hicks, Craig Klein and Mark Mullins -- the band also features electric guitar and bass, keyboard and drums. But, as would be expected, the brass trio dominated the evening in Long's Park.
Their music worked solos and musical dialogues into the jam, as well as in-unison arrangements that sounded at times a lot like early Chicago -- the band, not the city, back before sappy, mid-'80s love songs turned the once-great rock ensemble into fodder for easy-listening radio.
Appropriately enough, given New Orleans' recent history with Hurricane Katrina, a crowd-pleaser Sunday included "When the Levee Breaks," a blues tune written and recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 and later popularized -- in substantially different form -- by Led Zeppelin in 1971. The rest of the Bonerama playlist was certainly varied, with highlights including 1947's "Save the Bones for Henry Jones" by Danny Barker, Bonerama's own "Hard Times" and Fats Domino's 1957 hit "I'm Walkin'." The latter ended the show on such a spirited high note that an encore was inevitable -- and the band did not disappoint. Bonerama returned to the stage for an inspired rendition of "Crosstown Traffic," a psychedelic piece recorded in 1968 by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
All in all, it was a mixed landscape of intricate musical explorations, a touch of blues and a brassy cacophony, as much progressive rock as big band jazz, but never so hard as to make "heavy metal" a worthwhile pun. Throughout the performance, Mullins at center stage worked with a digital programmer to give his trombone a series of distortions unlike anything I've heard before -- at one point somehow blurring the line between electric guitar and didgeridoo.
The music almost immediately drew a smattering of dancers to ride the sound in front of the newly painted amphitheater. The small group grew in numbers, energy and age diversity as the evening rolled toward night.
A fair number of youngsters also danced unabashedly on their parents' blankets. And then there was Robin Stevens, one of the crowd's more enthusiastic chair dancers. "I don't know why more people aren't up and dancing," she said, swiveling her shoulders to the music. A first-time patron of the Long's Park series, Stevens of Lancaster said she was drawn by the good weather and the band's ties to New Orleans. She was a little disappointed, she said, by the preponderance of rock over jazz, "but some of it I really like."
Ben Vonderheide, also of Lancaster, was stretched out on the grass, eyes closed, an expression of absolute contentment on his face. "I'm just listening to the music and enjoying the sky," he said. "They go together really well." Vonderheide said he didn't know who was playing before coming out to the park on Sunday. "I never check beforehand," he said. "I'd rather come out and not know. That way, it's a nice surprise."
The series continues next Sunday with Buckwheat Zydeco, back for its third appearance at Long's Park. The series concludes Aug. 30 with Jimmy Thackery & the Drivers. For the full schedule, visit Long's Park online at www.longspark.org.
by Tom Knapp