When you think of trombones generally you think marching band or big band jazz, right? I first heard Bonerama when they were performing with Woodenhead as the "Trombones from Hell" at Jazzfest in the late 90's. I was very intrigued to hear a trombone playing with a jazz-fusion rock band and totally rocking it. The next year they appeared as Bonerama with Woodenhead. A year or two later we saw promotions at Jazzfest for a night of Led Zeppelin performed by Bonerama. Trombones playing Led Zeppelin? That got my attention and we gathered a group of us to go check them out. We were blown away. Every song was totally in your face and done so well. Bonerama moved the trombone from the sideline to the front as the lead instrument.
With the release of their latest album, Hot Like Fire, I had a chance to to talk with Mark Mullins, co-founder of Bonerama along with Craig Klein, about how they came to be Bonerama.
Listen to the full interview below or keep scrolling to read the transcript.
Drea Stein: Good afternoon, Mark Mullins from Bonerama. How you doing today?
Mark Mullins: Good afternoon, Drea, I'm doing great. How are you?
DS: I am doing wonderful. It's great to have you back in town again. I've missed seeing you guys. I haven't been to New Orleans for a minute.
MM: You're probably in New Orleans, and we're in St. Louis or something like that or somewhere.
MM: No, we're looking forward to getting back. I always say it when I talk to you, and it's just true, St. Louis is a special spot for us because it's one of the first places that we started coming to when we decided we wanted to get outside of New Orleans and play some other places. We found a whole family and community of music lovers there, thanks in great part to you and KDHX that has lasted years and years and years. We're going on our 20th year now as a band and still always look forward to seeing the St. Louis stop on the way. Even if it's in the middle of December, fingers crossed, we won't have too much travel issues getting up there because we love just coming to see you guys.
DS: Yeah, it can be a challenge this time of year, I do agree. We will salt the roads if we have to, to get you up here... So, Bonerama has a brand new album out.
MM: We do. It only took four years to get it done. We're notorious for, I've said this before, we're notorious for the Peter Gabriel approach of making records where it just takes years and years. A lot of it's just--we travel a lot, and when we're home, we'll play a bit. The guys also play in other bands, but Bonerama's our main thing. It just takes some time to get these records out and finished. Once we record them, we wanna really make sure they sound strong and sound as good as we can, so we spend some time mixing them and just getting them right.
We're loving this one so much. It's our 7th record. It's called "Hot Like Fire" and it's our first record that we've put out with Basin Street Records here in New Orleans, which if you're familiar with a lot of different New Orleans' bands, like Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield, and so many others. He's got some really special stuff under the label so we were really excited that this could work out for this one to be on Basin Street. Mark Samuels is just a great guy, does a great job on what he does and so far it's been a real good relationship.
DS: Oh, yeah, because you've produced all your own albums up to this point, haven't you?
MM: Yeah, we really have. It's worked well for us because we kind of ... you own everything, you control everything, and you can just see more ... It's expensive to make these things, so it really makes a difference when people step up to the merch table to actually buy a record. I know these days, "You're a buying a record? What are you doing? Just stream it on something." It makes a difference for especially bands like us that are small, medium-size as bands that really rely on that to try to get back on the road because traveling is expensive.
DS: Oh yeah.
MM: We're not traveling very lavishly at all by any means. It can really be tough to make it all work on the spreadsheet. At the end of the day, kind of it has to someway. We're not getting rich off this, but we can just keep it from being upside down, and merch really helps with that. Up until now, we haven't really looked at releasing a record with anyone else. We really felt the time was right with Basin Street at this point to really help us get this out there a little bit further reach than we could on our own. He's got some great distribution people and he's already got a good radio push going on. All those things are very, very important. It's been working out great. We love Basin Street Records.
DS: Well, yeah, they handle a lot of great artists, and I have quite a few CDs that are Basin Street music. Anyway, you're coming to town Saturday night over at the Atomic Cowboy. You've been here, what, last spring sometime?
MM: I should know that off the top of my head. It doesn't seem like it was very long ago. This is our first time playing the Atomic Cowboy, which is apparently The Bootleg Room?
DS: Yes. The Bootleg. Yeah.
MM: If I got that right? We usually play Broadway Oyster Bar, John, everybody over there, that's like a second home for us, too, over at the Broadway Oyster Bar. This one, they just for whatever reason, I'm not even sure why, it happens with the agent and whatever routing and what shows are available, it got us in here. I've heard wonderful things about it. I looked at the calendar and thought it was great. Looking forward to the Atomic Cowboy on a Saturday night.
DS: Yeah. Well, actually, it's a friend of mine's birthday. So she's moving her birthday party to your show that night.
MM: Wonderful. We'll touch up our happy birthday version for her.
DS: Do a face melt for her, yeah...This was a short little trip. I guess you're hitting the road right before the holiday season?
MM: Yeah. We're going to start up at Benton Harbor on the 14th, Michigan. We'll get the road salted before we come back down. We're going to-
DS: Well, you'll be sliding south.
MM: ... Benton Harbor, Michigan, on the 14th, and then Chicago. It's actually Evanston, Space is the room, on Friday the 15th. Then you guys, then we're heading right back home on Sunday. It's a quick little jaunt up there, but we just wanted to get back up to the Midwest one last time before the year's over.
DS: Yeah. You guys stay pretty busy even when you're not on the road as Bonerama, because I know you play in a gazillion other things, band, and incarnations. You just recently sat in with a Last Waltz tribute down there, didn't you?
MM: We did. We had the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. All the musicians down here do a lot of things because they help musicians so much with healthcare down here. There's always benefits for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. This was one of them put on by the Joy Theater and the New Orleans Suspects. kind of like just the revolving cast of characters from New Orleans recreating the songs from the Last Waltz. It was really wonderful. They even did it right... the night after Thanksgiving here in New Orleans at the Joy. It was just great. I went in and did one song. Did horns for it last year with the Bonerama horns, but this year I had something else, a previous engagement already booked that night, so I couldn't make the whole night. I went and did the one song and then zipped over Tipitina's to play the other engagement I mentioned, which was Ivan Neville. He had a Neville's family band. Really, really cool stuff. I mean, you could feel the history coming off the walls, off the stage when they crank those songs.
DS: Oh my goodness, yes.
MM: It was really, really exciting. The Bonerama is definitely the main thing for everybody these days. Especially with the new record out and trying to get back to all these places as often as we can. Midwest...just got back from the Northeast. We'll be going to Florida right after the beginning of the year, we're going down there. Sunny Key West, Boca, and where else, St. Petersburg. So, we try to stay moving. When we're not, we do stay pretty busy here locally with either Bonerama or different things.
DS: I see Craig (Klein) posting all the time on Facebook with all the different things he's involved with. He was just in Europe with one of his projects, wasn't he?
MM: He was in Europe with the Jazz Vipers. He plays down there regularly, downtown on Frenchman Street with them. It's such a great band. Actually, the guitarist, Molly Reeves, did the artwork for Hot Like Fire. She's in the Jazz Vipers.
DS: Really? I love the artwork.
MM: She's responsible for ... The artwork is fantastic. It's this beautiful.... If you haven't seen it, it's like a beautiful skull, psychedelic looking skull thing with all these New Orleans references kind of painted into it. Including the trombone, of course, since it's a Bonerama record. She did a killer, killer job. But, they did--they just got back from Europe with the Vipers. It's hard to schedule stuff when things like that happen because I got stuff, too, that comes up. Matt (Perrine) gets certain things that comes up. We just have to do our best to do it and make sure we carve out quality Bonerama time. That's why we come up there in December. We don't care what time of year it is, what season it is, we'll make a point to get up there. So, December 16th, it's Atomic Cowboy. I'm looking forward to seeing y'all.
DS: We're looking forward to having you. I wanted to ask a little bit about who writes the music? How do you get to your music?
MM: You know...one thing I like about this record is that this was a little bit more balanced with three ... We've got three songwriters in the band. In the past, it's been a little bit out of balance, if you will, but this one was really cool because Matt Perrine has got a bunch of songs on it. Matt's a killer songwriter. He knows how to write for personalities and people. He knows strengths and how to make the most out of all that.
DS: That's neat!
MM: He does that with the songs, but he brings it to the band. It's a real cool gift. He's got a bunch of songs on here. He plays sousaphone and electric bass if you're not familiar with Matt. It's great to have Matt back in the band because couple of years ago he kind of took a leave of absence. He's been with us since day one. He said, "I need to stay a little closer to home. Focus on some things. Family." We're like, "No problem, man." I was so happy when he said, "I'm ready to come back." I'm like, "Yeah!" Matt adds a whole new dynamic to the band when he's with us. Then Craig Kline, of course, the founder ...
DS: Your partner in crime from day one.
MM: Yeah, this was all Craig's idea after he saw a band in the arch with multiple trombones playing Latin music. He's like, "Oh, man, we are going to do the New Orleans version of this." He approached me, that was 20 years ago, and we haven't stopped. He brings in compositions and arrangements and stuff as well. I do some myself. So with all three of us, we're all kind of coming from different backgrounds. We have different flavors that we like, different sounds that we like. And that's why I'm excited about this record because it's really more balanced. It sounds more of a cohesive band. Even though it's three different songwriters, it really works to compliment each other in a good way I think.
DS: Oh, yeah. I agree. There's diversity, but there's a flow to it.
MM: That's right.
DS: At least to my ears. That's how I hear it. Yes, I don't necessarily like if you have a band where there's only one songwriter, everything kind of is their influence. It's nice because I know you people as individuals, not just as a band. I know you personally. I can see everybody's personality in what they bring to the band in terms of the music
MM: That's the strength and the beauty of being in a band instead of a solo project. Because you tap on all of that stuff and it's cool. It's still a cohesive group, but you're not quite sure where it might be going next. That's how we like to keep it.
DS: Once again we're talking with with Mark Mullins from Bonerama and we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us this afternoon, too.
MM: Of course!
DS: So it was Craig that came with the idea to do a trombone-driven band?
MM: Yeah, it was. We were in New York City a lot back when we playing with Harry Connick Jr's band in the '90s. This was just a night off; I guess we had ... someone might have given him a heads up to go check out this multiple trombone group, but I wasn't with him. I was probably off drinking somewhere or something. I don't know, just goofing off, but Craig's out there chasing down music. I don't know the name of the group, but I must believe it was The Village Gate. He was just blown away by this multiple trombones upfront just killing this Latin music. He instantly realized this could work in New Orleans with a New Orleans theme of some kind. And at that time, this is when Trombone Shorty was still short. He was still a really young dude. He hadn't become a household name and I guess, before Big Sam put his band together. All I'm saying is, at the time, the trombone was kind of a back seat instrument. It was always the first one to get cut on gigs on Bourbon Street when they would go from three horns upfront, trumpet, clarinet, and trombone. If it was to go down to two horns upfront, the trombone player is going to be the one that gets cuts. No questions, because I've seen it, I saw it, I lived it. We were sort of the butt of all jokes as well. At that time, I was just like, "We just got no respect," it seemed like. Then in a big way, this was sort of a mission to put the trombone upfront. Let's just not be afraid of it. Let's show you that it can be a really dynamic instrument that can cover a lot of different things. A lot of different styles. A lot of different ways, range. He put it all together with three of us up front. It's so much fun to write for the band.
DS: Oh, my goodness! Yeah.
MM: I like to bring in the arrangements of rock songs. Like the Zeppelin stuff, I love arranging that stuff for our band with sousaphone and three trombones, guitar, and drums. When people hear, to me, we're just playing these songs that we love, but the vehicle is the trombone to deliver them on. So when people it that way, it seems to light people up in a pretty cool way. That's really fun because, for us, it's just good music. We love to bring that in and spit it out through the trombone and see what's sticks out with crowd.
DS: Well, I think the first time i saw you as a musician play that I was conscious, was in 96, 97, at Jazz Fest. It was Woodenhead with the Trombones From Hell. Then next year it was Woodenhead with I think the Bonerama Horns. I don't remember what year it was that you did your first gig -- Tips in the French Quarter. You did A Whole Night of Led Zeppelin. We drag all our friends there and we just all just looking at each other going, "I can't believe I'm hearing this on a trombone and it sounds so fab!" We were all just like, "Who are these guys!?"
MM: It's so much fun to do. Again, it's really just about picking the right songs. On the new record, we did something we really hadn't done before. I'm a Radiohead fan, on top of other things. I was just in the middle of the OK Computer record randomly, just revisiting it because it's just such a great album. Paranoid Android came on and I know it so well just from knowing that record inside out. It struck me one day recently ... a year or so ago, that, "Oh, no. This could transfer also really in a cool way I think to our band, to Bonerama. Three trombones, sousaphone."
So I did an arrangement on it and that's the only Rock cover that we have on our record now. It's so much fun to play. It's such a dynamic type of song, to begin with. We don't do a vocal treatment of it like Thom Yorke, but the trombone covers Yorke's vocal basically, and a lot of the other things that happen through the song get covered with multiple different people taking turns. Stepping up, taking turns. In the centerpiece of it, if you're familiar with that song, it goes to a real slow kind of a drawn-out section. We thought it would be cool to put a New Orleans Dirge treatment on that. It actually kind of ... is somewhat functional.
DS: It does.
MM: I'd love to hear if the guys ever heard it. The Radiohead folks if they ever heard it, what they would say. I know we had a tour manager from what I understand or what I was told that there was a tour manager from Radiohead's group that was at our CD release show. But I didn't get a chance to speak with him or anything. But whatever, it would just be kind of cool to see-
DS: See how their feeling is about that. Well, didn't you get to meet-
MM: Yeah, Robert Plant.
DS:... was is it ... yeah, Robert Plant.
MM:...heard our Ocean version, I know that. He seems to be enamored by it which was cool.
DS: Personal favorite being an old Deadhead that I am. I've seen you cover the other one which is quite, in my opinion, I'm not a musician, but musically, it looks like a challenging song from the Grateful Dead.
MM: Yeah, that's a fun one too. They are all so different and so much fun to play. That one, we go and do the Dark Star in the middle, and come back around to the Other One for the end, and It's just a nice little trip. Again, a very different song and you might hear it through the rest of the set. You never quite know what you're going to hear in a Bonerama show.
DS: Kind of like a Grateful Dead show.
MM: Yeah, we do a West L.A. Fadeaway also from time to time. We just keep using what's in our back pocket. Whenever time is right, or somebody requests something, we'll do our best to try to kind of slide it in there so to speak. I can't believe I said that.
DS: It was a great pun. Anyway, over the years, I've dragged people to your shows. I've personally said, "If you're not happy with the music you hear, I will personally reach in my pocket and give you your money back." I say, "I just believe that you will be that entertained." I've got a young man I worked with that I pulled up some YouTube videos and showed him. He's in his early 20s. He listens to a lot of Rap and Hip Hop but knew who Led Zeppelin is. So I say, "Okay, we've got to find a Led Zeppelin video of you guys." This kid was just about drooling. I mean, he was so blown away. I told him you were coming in and he goes, "When is it? I got to write this down. I got to go. I got to go and got to write my friends."
MM: Nice. Thank you.
DS: To me, it just feels so good because there's a 30-plus years age gap between him and I. Yet we can cross that with music and your music is the vehicle for that. I love that that happens. What I'm saying is that somebody that's listening to an entire genre of music, generally speaking, and I turned him onto your stuff, and he's like, "This is ..." It just totally opened up his mind. So thank you for doing what you do because-
MM: I'll always appreciate that.
DS:... it allows me to do that for other people.
MM: Music is the great unifier. When you walk into a show, you might not sure who you're going to be seeing, first of all. Who you are going to meet on the floor or in the crowd. People from all sort of different backgrounds that just love ... Music brings them all together. It could be political backgrounds; it could be ethnic backgrounds or whatever. It's just so cool to be on own our side of the stage and look out and see people of all kinds having fun. Our job is to make people happy and have a good time. I'd never take this for granted, every night I'm like, "We're the luckiest people in the world to be able to do this." We feel so fortunate. I kind of feel like especially after Katrina, we feel like the ambassadors for the city in some way too. Because everyone's always asking about the city, how it's doing. The city is doing terrific, but we couldn't do it without the outside help from everybody that stepped up.
DS: The music that you all put together heals.
MM: To say that it's a special place to be from. It's great to be able to spread that love around and bring it to different places like St. Louis.
DS: Well, it's our pleasure to host you. Like I said, we met a long time ago when I sent you an email and said, "Yeah, I play 12-minute songs."
MM: That's right.
DS: That's how we met. But to this day, I still remember the gentleman that called and said, "I had to pull over. I couldn't drive and listen to that at the same time." And I'm like, "Well, good."
MM: Y'all were one of the first stations to play that 12-minute Frankenstein on our first record there. We still bring that one back from time to time. That one kind of fell off the setlist for a couple of years. But we're doing it again; it's another fun one. That's just a fun ride. Transfers great to trombone. I think almost anything can transfer great to trombone. That's just how I think. I'm a little biased, but we try. We try, and the common denominator is that it's just music we like that we think is worth sharing. We're going to do it through the trombone as our voice. It's a trip of a ride.
DS: Your voice is strong. To this day, every time I hear any of your stuff, it's just kind of like, "Wow! Wow!" I'm just always just amazed at, for one, it's a trombone. I mean, that's just not an instrument--particularly, in your town, trombones are common, up here, they're rare. Horn instruments down there are very common. Up here, they're not nearly as common. It's just the trombone idea at first, and then you add in the type of music. Your originals stand on their own. The covers are what kind of sometimes hooked people in for the first time. But it's the original music that to me, is just like, "This was written to played on a trombone, not on a guitar."
DS: Not a piano. It's not an Allen Toussaint song. It was written to be played on a trombone, and it's just amazing. I just I'm always blown away and thoroughly enjoy it. So keep on doing it.
MM: Well, thank you. We're definitely going to try to keep everything going. Again, one great way to do it is just try to stay on the road as often as we can and come see you, folks because it's great. Now, St. Louis, you do have some trombone action. You got the Funky Butt guys up there, right?
DS: Oh yeah.
MM: It's so nice to see them come out to the show and hang out too. It's wonderful. There's this direct connection we feel with them. I always listen to what they do. A great bunch of guys and great band. I'm sure most of your listeners have seen them by now. I'm sure. But if you haven't, you go see the Funky Butt Brass Band. They are your hometown ambassadors for New Orleans music.
DS: Oh, absolutely. Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing you just to say "Hello" in person instead of on the phone. I'm looking forward to the show. I think the last time you might have been through town might have been when my husband and I were traveling because I don't believe I was there. I needed a dose of the bones. Got to get my bones shaken.
MM: Well, we're going to bring it. We're definitely, going to bring it. It's going to Saturday, December 16th in St. Louis there. At the Atomic Cowboy, the Bootleg. I believe it's a relatively early show when they say eight o'clock.
DS: I think you're correct on that last I heard.
MM: I don't know ... I don't mind the early show. When I was younger, maybe I did. I'm good with it now. Nice early show ... It's full day anyway with travel and stuff getting there. So they don't want to push it too late. I think some of our crowd likes the earlier shows. Some like in New Orleans, the Jazz Fest gets started at midnight, two o'clock. Some that start at 4:00. It's insane. So we would like to get to watch the show in St. Louis.
DS: We went one time to see a 3:00 A.M ... No, it was a 2:00 A.M show. At 4:30 we were still sitting outside then we gave up. Because they were still out loading the previous band at 4:30 in the morning. I'm like, "I just can't do this anymore." That's was after having been at Jazz Fest all day. I was like, "No."
MM: Oh, my God.
DS: Those were my younger days. I have little better sense now than trying to attempt that. Thanks so much for your time this afternoon. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule. We'll see you soon.
MM: Thank you so much, Drea, and thanks for what you guys do at the station. It's never taken for granted, never goes unnoticed. Y'all really help get our music out to the people of St. Louis big time. So thank you.
DS: Well, thank you. We'll see you soon. Take care, Mark.
MM: Yeah, you're right. Bye-bye.
Drea Stein hosts The Other One on KDHX, Tuesdays 12-2 p.m. Bonerama plays The Bootleg at Atomic Cowboy on Saturday, December 16, 2017.
St. Louis' eclectic music scene lights up venues across the region with holiday cheer and concerts aplenty. Your favorite local bands create their own spin on seasonal favorites old and new and often feature guest musicians from the area to really bring the St. Louis music community together for the holidays! Many of these special shows have become longstanding annual St. Louis holiday traditions. Check out these holiday highlights.
Rough Shop rolls out their fourteenth annual Holiday Extravaganza. In addition to the band's five-person lineup, confirmed guests include Auset Sarno (Auset Music Project), Danielle Aslanian (One Take Band), Merv Schrock (Ransom Note), Chris Grabau (Magnolia Summer, Cave States), Steve Carosello (Love Experts, Palaver), and Michael Ludwig playing pedal steel guitar. The concerts feature classic Christmas numbers, lesser known tunes and the many Rough Shop-penned holiday originals from their Christmas albums.
12/9 Brothers Lazaroff's Hanukkah Hullabaloo at Joe's Cafe at 7PM (Sold Out)
This year's Hanukkah Hullabaloo is the seventh installment of two sets of wide-ranging music at Joe's Cafe. The Brothers Lazaroff bring a variety of styles to the table including jazz, folk, rock, and "psychedelic klezmer funk." Joined by Rabbi James Stone Goodman and the Eight Night Orchestra, all event proceeds go to the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri. This organization helps in combating anti-semitism and hate crimes with the overall goal of keeping communities safe for everyone.
Celia's Yuletide Express provides a modern take on a classic group of Christmas carolers. Since 2005, this evolving collection of singers appear at a variety of venues during the holidays. Fortunately enough, this year they bring their traditional holiday spirit to The Stage at KDHX. In true Christmas fashion, anyone from the audience can join in on the fun and sing with Celia's Yuletide Express!
Renowned for his singing ability and proficiency at performing a wide variety of styles, cabaret crooner Tim Schall brings this special performance to The Stage at KDHX. Pianist Carol Schmidt and bassist Ben Wheeler join Tim for a palette of holiday necessities. Selections include Let It Snow, Little Drummer Boy, What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? and many other favorites.
Intrigued by Tim Schall's Holiday Swing? This concert at the beautiful Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, Illinois may pique your interest as well. Erin Bode tours extensively and remains widely regarded for her cross pollination of jazz, folk, and pop music. The show features Christmas favorites, original compositions, and standards that will surely provide an intimate and extensive performance for the audience.
In case you missed the three dates at the Focal Point the previous weekend, Rough Shop also performs their Holiday Extravaganza show at the historic Wildey Theatre in downtown Edwardsville. This marks Rough Shop's first performance outside of St. Louis, which will be a memorable one. Expect over a decade of musical prowess as they merrily plow through their Christmas originals and holiday standards in the ornate theatre and former opera house.
12/15 & 12/16 (3 SHOWS) The 9th Annual Funky Butt Brass Band Holiday Brasstravaganza at Off Broadway at 9PM 12/15 & 12/16 w/ KIDS Matinee on Sat. 12/16 at 3PM (12/16 and Kids matinee Sold Out)
The always highly anticipated Funky Butt Brass Band bring their annual Brasstravaganza to Off Broadway for three shows in two days. This marks the release of their new album, 'A Funky Butt Family Christmas' featuring Roland Johnson, Steve Ewing of The Urge and other heavy hitters. Holidays can be a stressful time of year for many, so leave your funk behind and let Funky Butt put you in the Christmas spirit. Have fun and wear PJs. There's also a show for the kids on Saturday at 3PM.
The Jake's Leg Annual Acoustic Christmas Dance Party has also become a time-honored tradition in St. Louis. Bringing some forty years of experience to the table, the concert will be all acoustic, but dancing will be encouraged at this Focal Point show. The acoustic space of the Focal Point will still provide an invaluable listening experience.
Fans of the local rockin' country group Diesel Island keep Christmas(ish) shows alive at the Focal Point. Band members Brian Henneman, Kip Loui, Richard Tralles, Carl Pandolfi and Spencer Marquart perform original cuts from their debut album and throw in some seasonal favorites to keep the holiday spirit alive and well all night long.
If you're in the mood for skilled songwriting and an engaging performance, Cree Rider Family Band delivers their take on a Focal Point holiday show. The night will feature guest Misisipi Mike Wolf, whose known nationally for his songwriting and has drawn comparisons to John Prine and Merle Haggard.
To finish off the month of December, T.J. Müller brings his Banjo Revue to the Focal Point. See St. Louis' most renowned jazz banjo players augmented with musical accompaniment of tuba and stride piano. Although this concert occurs after Christmas, you can still expect some best-loved Christmas tunes along with T.J.'s masterful takes on foundational music from the Great American Songbook!
When Kirk West got a camera as a gift he began shooting his life. What started with model cars and toy tracks grew to muscle cars, drag strips and hippie dreams of rock music and girls. His camera took him from small town Iowa to the Chicago blues scene, Nashville, arenas, twenty years with the Allman Brothers Band and a book and exhibit, The Blues in Black and White, at the National Blues Museum.
West grew up listening to country music but by the mid 60's he heard the siren songs of the summer of love. San Francisco, The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Byrds and Chambers Brothers called to him but so did another sound. It was an album a high school friend played: "Paul Butterfield's East-West album changed my life," Kirk says, "it hooked me, hooked me good. It blew my mind. It was very much like what the Allman Brothers became."
Chicago was closer than San Francisco so after high school in 1968 West moved there and shot his first rock concert, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Being entrepreneurial, he mounted his Grateful Dead photos on cardboard and sold them outside the shows. Eventually he and his Nikon hit the road taking odd jobs, shooting concerts and selling pictures but always returning to Chicago. It was more a hobby than a career plan until he crashed and burned in Florida.
Clean and sober he returned to Chicago in 1976 with the idea that he could make a living through photography. Over the next 24 years he would become a well-known portrait, country music and concert photographer because "that's where the money was" but his passion was the Chicago blues scene.
At night he would hit the club scene shooting and learning with a group of other photographers. He went to north and south side clubs "stepping lightly" as he says, "because I didn't know any black people growing up." He found friends like Willie Dixon "who was warm, friendly and wanted to teach and share" and Junior Wells who "was tough and wanted to test you."
He became a regular at Buddy Guy's Checkerboard Lounge and spent time at Elaine's, the Delta Fish Market and other clubs. It led to lifelong friendships with the musicians and their extraordinary level of comfort with him shooting them in formal and informal settings. West says to capture the energy and honesty of a performance or performer, "you need to be invisible as a photographer and know when not to take pictures."
It also takes skill to capture skin tones, images in a club lit by a 100-watt bulb, and faces covered by hats. And, pre digital era photos like these required serious dark room hours to define the shadows and shades of gray that tell a story. The skills and the stories shine through West's 65 photo exhibit.
You can see it in the sweat dripping off Etta James's chin as she hunkers over belting out the blues or Bob Marley's dreadlocks in full flight as he throws his head back in song. The Delta Fish Market photos take you to the honesty of the people, streets, and music of a Chicago neighborhood. St. Louis's Albert King, who West says, "always got my vote as greatest living guitarist," is there puffing his pipe as he plays. And, there is the unforgettable sequence of James Cotton and Buddy Guy at Muddy Waters wake toasting him and dissolving into laughter. Talk about capturing a moment.
One of West's favorite photos in the show is the one he shot for the Allman Brothers 1991 album Shades of Two Worlds. The setting is the porch of a shotgun shack he found in Memphis with the band, homeowners, neighbors and a couple of women and kids dressed up for their church services down the street. He was there because he joined the Allman Brothers tour bus in 1989 as a photographer but ended up riding it for 24 years as their tour manager. "I never stopped shooting but it meant less time in the pits ... even worse," West says, "it was my job to enforce the photographer rules that I hated as a shooter."
When he finally got off the bus for the last time Kirk began to think about what next. He and his wife Kirsten had relocated to Macon GA in the early 90's. They bought the old Victorian mansion the Allman brothers rented when they first started. Eventually they restored it and turned it into a museum. It was there he looked at his 45 years of archives he realized "my past is my future."
His first effort was a Kickstarter financed photography book about the Allman Brothers years, Les Brers -- Kirk West's Photographic Journey with The Brothers. It took a year and sold over 4,000 copies. He approached the 200 photo newly published The Blues in Black and White the same way. He is thrilled to be exhibiting at the National Blues Museum because "it is a teaching museum that tells the story of the blues and the trajectory of the music."
West first approached the National Blues Museum staff during its April 2016 grand opening. Jacqueline Dace the Director of Internal Affairs was interested: "We try to think a year ahead about our traveling exhibits. I particularly like black and white images because they force you to look closer and see the expressions a little more and this is a personal collection so there are stories behind every picture." You can hear Kirk tell a few of those stories on the NBM podcast.
Kirk West will always keep his Nikon D750 and 28-55 lens ready but for now his future will be residing in the National Blues Museum Scott and Diane McCuaig and Family Gallery through February 4, 2018. Blues in Black and White is an intimate insider's camera lens view of the world that will appeal to photographers and blues fans alike. Don't miss it.
The first phase of the Dream Syndicate’s career was based in the Paisley Underground scene of Los Angeles in the ‘80s, from 1981 to 1989. In 2012, the band reunited for a festival performance in Spain, and continued to play sporadically scheduled shows across the U.S. and Europe afterward. As their momentum and love of playing together was rekindled, the appetite for performing and writing only grew. The Dream Syndicate released its first album of new studio material in 29 years in September of 2017, and embarked on proper tours of Europe and the U.S. shortly thereafter.
Listen to Chris Bay's interview with Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate below, or keep scrolling for the transcript.
Chris Bay: You're listening to 88.1, KDHX. I'm Chris Bay and I'm joined by Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate, the band has just released a new record, How Did I Find Myself Here. The first album of new studio material in nearly two decades and they'll be in St. Louis at Off Broadway on Wednesday December 6th, with Elephant Stone. Thanks so much for taking a few minutes to join us Steve.
Steve Wynn: You bet Chris. Good talking to you.
CB: The band reunited in 2012 I believe, with new member Jason Victor added to the lineup and you did some limited touring in those first post-reunion years. How did you go from doing mostly festivals and long weekends and sort of one off dates, to making a new record and then doing more solid touring this past year?
SW: From the time we dipped our toes in the reunion waters back in 2012, our whole thing was, let's take it one step at a time. Let's not do too much. Let's not get ourselves set up with too much stuff that we end up regretting. We would book a show here and a show there, maybe a week in Europe or a few days in Spain or maybe a long weekend. We went to St. Louis actually, a couple years ago. We did one-offs here and there just to see if we were digging it. To see if even the fans were digging it, everything. Each time we did that one short, small thing, it was great and we kept doing more. After about two years of that, we realized, okay, we don't have to be careful anymore, we like this. Let's make a record. Even then we said, "Let's go in the studio, under the cover of night. Let's go on our own dime, on our own time without making a big fuss about it and if it's not good, nobody will know about it." It went great.
CB: You were just trying to avoid the pressure and the anticipation of what a new Dream Syndicate record might look like by approaching it that way?
SW: Yeah. I think we're all very proud of the band, the history, what we were doing then and what we're doing now and we know, as music fans, all the pitfalls of reunion records, how they can can and how they usually go wrong. You go in and you don't have the magic that was there the first time around or you're so slavishly like the original was, it's seems almost silly or you're so far from the original it seems like, why did you even bother doing this? Why are you calling it that? There are a million ways that kind of thing can go wrong and we were bracing ourselves for all of them until the first hour. We went behind the studio and we looked at each other and we said, "This is feeling pretty good. I think we're onto something."
CB: Yeah. That's great. The fact that you released that and you're touring so heavily in the aftermath shows that you feel good about the product, which is exciting too.
SW: It's a really good feeling. In fact, we've been out on the road. We did a European tour already. We toured about 21 shows over there and now we're just getting started on this US tour. We, from the beginning of the European tour, decided we're going to play a lot of the new record, to see how it goes and you know, you want to play your new stuff but you also know that sometimes with certain bands, too many new songs and people are already kind of tapping their toes and checking their phones while they wait for their old favorites. But it wasn't like that. The people came to the shows, the fans were there, wanted to hear the new stuff. They knew the new album. They already knew the new songs and that's what they came to hear. That was a great feeling.
CB: Yeah. That's really cool. I'm excited to hear some of these new songs live for the first time. Of course, love the older stuff that we've gotten familiar with; Boston, Days of Wine and Roses, John Coltrane Stereo Blues, all that stuff. Of the new stuff, are there any songs that have taken more prominent roles in your live set?
SW: We've been playing all of them. The only song we haven't been playing is the last song on the record, Kendra's Dream and that's because Kendra hasn't been with us. We've been tempted to try out our version of it, but everything else we've played live and it's funny, they all did the show really well. The one that's probably, in a way, most exciting is the title track, How Did I Find Myself Here, because it's one of those Dream Syndicate songs where we have the basic outline, a basic structure but it can go anywhere every night and that's always been the thing with this band that we do best. That kind of free form, I don't know. I never thought of us as a jam band per say but we have done improvisational things well and that song is a good framework for us to do that.
CB: Fantastic. On the topic of touring, you and Jason have been touring pretty regularly over the last several years, decade plus in various projects. Steven Wynn Miracle Three for example but Mark and Dennis seem to have, at least from what I can tell, have had a little bit more subtle lives over the intervening years. If you look back at touring as a band, back to when you were last doing this with the Dream Syndicate, early to mid 80s and touring now, how do those experiences feel different to you?
SW: It is a lot different. It's funny. When we toured together in the '80s it was, of course, a blast and a blur. In those years, when you're out there touring for the first time, first of all, it's such a novelty you want to do everything and experience everything and that also means when you're young, you want to get ... you know, get wild and stay up all night and that's a whole lot of fun. There's a great rock and roll tradition of that kind of thing. The big difference now, and in fact, I was just having this conversation with Chris Cacavas, who's playing keyboards for us on this tour. He and I were just talking about, you know what's really fun these days? Going on stage and playing music and walking off at the end and saying, "Man I never heard it quite like that before. We hit some new places we never hit before." Kind of a full circle back to where the biggest thrill is the music.
It's a luxury that bands have on stage that they sometimes forget which is, they can go onstage and do anything that's possible and that's exciting. Whatever you do, you'll walk off stage, you'll dust yourself off, sleep the night in some hotel and do it again the next day. That's a thrill because they shouldn't be the same night to night and on the nights where you hit some new place that you never did before, you did it, you know it, you feel it in your bones and that's what keeps you going.
CB: Maybe you remember it a little more too, right?
SW: You maybe remember it. Exactly. Like I say, I'm not here to say that other way of touring is no good, it's a lot of fun. It was fun for the Stones in '72 and it was fun for ... I can name a million bands but that was the first one that came to mind.
CB: Sure. Sure. Sure.
SW: For the Beatles in Germany and Hamburg, whatever. When you're young and you're wild and you're doing whatever stimulants and doing whatever drinks and whatever lifestyle things, we're never just plain ole, just watching the sun come up every morning and that kind of thing. All of that is a blast. It's part of the job description. After you've been doing it for a long time, it all comes full circle back to being that nerdy kid in a basement with a guitar, jamming along to your favorite record and imagining that someday, you might do it in front of people. That's where we're at right now. We're back at the same place as we were maybe as that 12 year old kid with the Fender Telecaster knockoff from Sears that you saved up for on your paper route.
CB: Yeah. I have to say too, when you last played in St. Louis, I did get this sense that you were all just kind of feeling a little bit younger, feeling just the fun of it all without a lot of pressure and just having a blast onstage. That was pretty tangible from my perspective at least.
SW: I think we're at that point. That was a really fun show, the 25th show. It's generally like that now. Not just in the dreams, again, not just in music but in any job, in anything you're doing, sometimes when you're starting out, you have that anxiety of like, well where's this going and how do I keep this gig and what happens if it stops and what happens if I do it wrong and I regret it for the rest of my life? Then you hit a point in your life where you don't think those things anymore. You just think, "Man I'm going to go out each night and do it and I'm going to do the best I can and make sure I stay awake for it."
What I mean by that, make sure I stay awake for it, make sure I experience it and I remember it, that I take it all in and then I'll do it again and that's kind of where we're at right now. We walk out each night and we say well, we were the Dream Syndicate last night, we're the Dream Syndicate tomorrow night and isn't that a blast? Let's make sure tonight, when we're the Dream Syndicate, we're an extra good Dream Syndicate. That's pretty cool.
CB: For sure. For sure. I want to change topics a little bit to something even more recent than the new record and something a little bit of a potentially sad thing to talk about, you're obviously very close with Scott McCaughey. You two played together in The Baseball Project and have obviously crossed passed over the last two or three decades, pretty heavily, and for folks who might not be aware, he recently had a pretty massive stroke while on tour. I don't really have a specific question, I'm just wondering; how did that feel to hear about the news of Scott and how are you taking it and some of the friends and family to the extent that you know, you're able and willing to speak about some of those issues?
SW: It was devastating. I was very close to ... First of all, Scott and I have toured together extensively for the last 10 years with The Baseball Project and we travel together and been very close friends, spent a lot of time together. It's very hard. On top of it, he was on tour with Alejandro Escovedo on the West coast with my wife on drums, Linda Pitmon. I was getting the way you are when you're the rock widow back home, which Linda and I take turns being. She was out there rocking, I was getting the texts and the emails like, "Hey, we had a great show. We played a Minus Five set and the Alejandro set and man, it was so good. Tonight we're going to go eat at this Mexican restaurant we love." Just enjoying the tour vicariously through them and then when I got the news, all of a sudden of what happened, that Scott had a stroke, it was unreal. The way it is when somebody close to you goes down like that.
For people who know him and who've hung out with him, he's such a bundle of life. He's hard-working, he loves music. He loves his music. He loves other bands. He's the guy standing at the front of the stage for the opening band, check out what they're doing. He's just a great guy and it's just shocking. The great thing is, it's like anybody in that situation, it's a hard road back but he's working at it and doing what he has to do and I feel like he'll be rocking again before too long.
CB: Well that's great news. I know we're all thinking about him and playing his music and trying to just hope for the best.
SW: Good. Good. That's the best thing you can do. He's so amazing. He has made so much great music and he's going to make a lot more so there's nothing ... There's a big GoFundMe thing for him on Facebook, to raise money because we all know how difficult it is with the healthcare system in this country and he needs a lot of it. People rallied around him so incredibly generously and so quickly. It was really touching and it's going to help a lot.
CB: That's great. Well, while we're on the topic of Scott and the Minus Five, I've always wondered if there's ... The Minus Five track, The Days of Wine and Booze, is there an explicit connection there to the Dream Syndicate song, The Days of Wine and Roses?
SW: You know it's funny you ask that and I'm surprised it's never come up before. I played that song onstage, many times with Scott in the shows we do together, I never asked him. I've never asked him if that was a nod to us or to the original movie or what so I have no idea. You've made me realize I have to ask him.
CB: Well hopefully someday, when Scott's back out on the road, we'll get the answer, I hope.
SW: Yeah. Maybe I'll find out by tonight.
CB: Thanks again for taking the time out of your busy schedule, Steve, to talk with us. We're really looking forward to the show. Once again, the Dream Syndicate in St. Louis, Wednesday December 6th. Elephant Stone is opening up and they'll be a great band to see as well.
SW: They are great. We're doing most of the tour with them. I don't know if you've seen them or play their records but a great band.
CB: Fantastic. Yeah. We play them here a lot at the station and I got the chance to see them in Austin a few years ago. Super excited about that.
CB: Yeah. We'll let you go and let you get back to your tour prep and we'll see you soon in St. Louis. Thanks a lot Steve.
SW: All right. Great talking to you.
When you feel the air chillin' and see the leaves a fallin' then you know the Baby Blues Showcase is about to come callin'. The 16th annual showcase has its usual reservation in place at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups for the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Our chef, Jeremy Segel-Moss, has put together another delectable menu for the end of the holiday weekend.
The November 26 show will once again feature some of St. Louis's best young blues talent. Its line up will mix some well-known Baby Blues graduates like, Marquise Knox, Aaron Griffin, Matt Lesch, Beulah Flakes and with an interesting group of new faces. The School of Rock will lead off at 5 PM with its ever evolving group of talented players.
The Second Time Around
Matt Lesch and Beulah Flakes both had their first and only Showcase experiences in 2013. Matt has been active ever since working as Big George Brock's lead guitarist and with his own band while attending Webster University. Matt says he "was really excited to get the call from Jeremy asking him to headline this year" and that he "ordered a new red blazer for the show." One of the songs he plans to play is an original composition "Rattlin" that he recently recorded for the STL Blues Society upcoming 17 in '17 CD. He will be joined onstage by Doug Foehner/guitar, Tecora Morgan/bass and Riley Coatie, Jr./drums.
Beulah Flakes, the daughter of Sharon and Doug Foehner, says "I have been singing with my parents as long as I can remember." She also points out that "I was mentored by Bennie Smith and Henry Townsend (piano lessons) and went to many blues clubs along the way." A five-year stint in the Army after high school and three kids took her life away from the music. Her 2013 appearance in the Showcase singing her own song "Injured Hearts" showed her potential but other priorities held sway.
Flakes signaled her emergence with her recording on the STLBS 16 in '16 compilation on which she sang Sharon's song "Homeless Child." Her real coming out party was a stellar performance as the vocalist for her Mom's band, Sharon Bear and the Golden Licks at this year's Big Muddy. She wowed the crowd and made her folks proud.
Beulah says she has learned that "I am more dynamic than I thought" and that she felt "Big Muddy was a rite of passage for me in the St. Louis blues scene, a confidence builder." She'll promises to bring her "emotional/sultry style" to the stage where, backed by her Mom and Dad, she hopes to honor them "by having everyone see the fruits of their labor."
This year Baby Blues attendees will meet Little Dylan Triplett a 17-year-old vocalist and honors senior at Edwardsville High School. His father, Art Pollard, is a local saxophonist who encourages his son's education and musical development. Dylan has been singing gospel in church choirs since he was five, classical with the Edwardsville Chamber Choir as well as playing organ and keyboards. It is his command of R&B, Soul and Blues that has caught everyone's attention.
It led to opportunities to sit in with The Carol Mason Band, Rolland Johnson and Skeet Rodgers and in recent months a regular set on Sunday nights at the Red Door in East St. Louis. Dylan says that experience "has helped him learn different styles and how to work a stage." It caught the attention of Marquise Knox and Michael Battle who invited him to sit in with the band. They will be backing up Dylan for the Showcase where he "hopes to leave a legacy with an experience people will remember."
The Blues Society has its own new entrant into the Showcase. The St. Louis Blues Society Youth Band is a creation of Michael Battle a STLBS board member/education director and drummer for the Marquise Knox Band. The current band consists of four youth between the ages 12-16: Nathan marks/bass, Marcus Lane/drums, Keller Anderson/guitar/vocals and Sam Castro/guitar.
The Youth Band is part of a bigger vision for Battle and the STLBS to engage kids in creative activity. Additional components include Blues in the Schools and working with Paul Niehaus and his Lotus Studios to give kids an inside look at song writing and production. KDHX and the National Blues Museum are also partners in these efforts. The Youth Band uses the museum's Legends Room stage for practice. They have played at the NBM, Blues in the Schools, and the St. Louis Art Fair.
The STLBS efforts go hand in hand with Battle's creation of a non-profit, The Center for Artistic Expression. With music at its heart the idea behind the Center is to help kids identify and develop their artistic interests. It isn't only about playing music; It's about all forms of creative expression from writing, photography and performing to radio and stage production and more. "The point is to help kids find their interests and help them pursue it," Battle says, "this gives kids something to do, it teaches them discipline and commitment and helps build the life skills kids need."
Jeremy Segel-Moss looks back with pride at 16 years of Baby Blues Showcases: "I believe in building institutions that outlast my own performance. Each year continues to reaffirm our belief that we are doing the right thing by cultivating young musicians helps build the St. Louis music scene." The Baby Blues Showcase is all about the Blues Society mission to support and advance the blues. And, as you can see there's quite a sampler platter to enjoy.
Come on down and keep the tradition alive at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups on Sunday, November 26 from 5-11 p.m.
Editor's note: This article is an extended version of the one published in the Nov/Dec issue of the St. Louis Blues Society BluesLetter.
Click below to see all of Bob Baugh's photos of the evening.