Monday, March 1, 2010

NPR's Bonerama: A Brass-Band Force Of Nature

The New Orleans brass band Bonerama updates "When the Levee Breaks" for a post-Katrina world.

"When the Levee Breaks" was first recorded by Memphis Minnie in 1929. The song originally referred to the great Mississippi Flood of 1927 — a natural disaster that destroyed communities up and down the banks of the river, but mostly spared the city of New Orleans. Of course, Hurricane Katrina created a whole different image of what can happen when the barriers between humans and the elements come down, so it makes sense that the New Orleans band Bonerama would bring the song forcefully into the present.

Mark Mullins and Craig Klein met while playing in the trombone section of Harry Connick Jr.'s Big Band, and together they created the core sound of Bonerama — reminiscent of street-tromping brass bands, avenues of jazz clubs and heavy-pulsing rock. Naturally, "When the Levee Breaks" pulls from the famous version on Led Zeppelin IV, complete with sly re-renderings of harmonica solos on swaying trombone. It moves with a heavy groove, dominated by the pounding wave of sound created by the slides of the trombone. The effect is edgier and more mournful than Led Zeppelin's lightly bluesy version — not only for its rich brass and darker, harder strung arrangement, but also because every bit of the performance comes from deep in the chest cavity, from a time and place when "Cryin' won't help you, and prayin' won't do no good." It feels like a force of nature, and as such, it threatens to sweep away everything in its path.

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