The trombone-led rock/funk band Bonerama first made its mark with a 2001 cover of the Edgar Winter Group’s instrumental, “Frankenstein,” and it has rearranged other greatest hits of rock, by Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers, to name a few.
On Friday at the House of Blues, Bonerama will double down on its classic rock roots and play an entire set of Led Zeppelin. The idea is not as novel as it might seem. The trombone is sonically close to the upper midrange sound of an electric guitar, so band co-founder Mark Mullins says playing songs with heavy guitar riffs works for Bonerama, particularly when the band’s three trombones play them in unison.
“If they’re not too fast and not too technical, they transfer really well to the trombone,” Mullins said.
The idea for the show started when a promoter in New York City wondered if there was a way to make a Bonerama show that was scheduled for last November more of an event.
Bonerama co-founder Craig Klein remembered the night they played an evening of Led Zeppelin at a private party with Zebra’s Randy Jackson on vocals, and suggested that they revisit that show, minus Jackson.
The band had been through enough lineup changes since then that “we only had two, maybe three Zeppelin songs in our catalog,” Mullins said. “So I sat down and put some songs together that I thought would be an eclectic mix.”
Part of the challenge was deciding which songs Bonerama could do justice to, whether by recreating them with some fidelity or reinventing them.
Mullins doesn’t think there is anything they couldn’t do if they brought in additional instruments — particularly keyboards — but since the show is about the intersection of Bonerama’s lineup and aesthetic with Led Zeppelin’s songs, he was reluctant to go that way.
“‘In the Light’ is a good example,” he said. The band could handle the riffs and much of the song, but “there’s so much of this synth noodly stuff that John Paul Jones was doing that we don’t have to replicate exactly, but someone has to take that space, and that would be some kind of a keyboard thing.”
For the New York date, Mullins and sousaphone player Matt Perrine wrote another dozen arrangements so that they would have a full show.
That ended up being a two- to three-week process as they would write, rehearse, hear what they had done, then tweak those arrangements.
Mullins had successfully arranged the horns and performed in the all-star tribute to Dr. John at the Saenger, and he was asked to do the same for all-star tributes to Mavis Staples in Chicago and Lynyrd Skynyrd in Atlanta at the same time he was trying to get ready for the New York Zeppelin show.
“November was totally insane. Every minute was accounted for,” Mullins said. “The arranging thing is the bear. It takes a lot of time to get it right that most people don’t think about.”
At the House of Blues, Bonerama will open with a set of its own music and non-rock covers, then play the Led Zep set, and that sequence highlights an awkward truth for the band: Its own songs aren’t as popular as its covers. Bonerama playing Bonerama songs is one thing; Bonerama playing Led Zeppelin generates a different level of excitement.
Mullins and Craig Klein write original songs for the band and they’re well received, but not with the same enthusiasm as the classic rock hits. Mullins understands.
“That’s the bed we made,” he said. “It’s about a collection of music, whether I brought it in or someone else brought it in. If it makes someone move, or if it moves them in any way, I’m a happy dude. We’ll have a cover followed by something we wrote and if they’re still moving, I’m good with that. Of course they’re going to know the other stuff, and I’m not holding my breath for them to scream out, ‘Hard Times.’ Though every once in a while someone will scream out for an original.”
It helps that these are songs that Mullins likes.
“Every time I see ‘Whipping Post’ come up on the setlist, I’m a happy boy,” Mullins said. “And we’re going to do something in there that makes it our own. I don’t think about the Allman Brothers when we play it; I think about Bonerama.”