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Kicking Mulebone 

Trombonist Mark Mullins spends roughly half the year on the road playing in Harry Connick Jr.'s band. When he's home in New Orleans, Mullins also plays funk with his all-trombone outfit Bonerama, and as a sideman for George Porter Jr., and his versatility on New Orleans' indigenous music forms makes him a coveted sideman. But Mullins is also the frontman for Mulebone, and that band's new sophomore CD, Only in New Orleans, shows that Mullins loves "Stairway to Heaven" as much as "Pennies From Heaven."

"I can't deny that rock music is something I want to do," says Mullins. "No matter what, I'll always listen to rock music, I'm influenced by it, and I grew up liking it."

Those inspirations are stamped throughout Only in New Orleans. The opening track, "King Kong," starts with an ominous rumble reminiscent of the introduction to Led Zeppelin's "In the Evening," while the vocal chorus is a half-step away from the Rolling Stones' "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," and Mullins even slips a quote from the Stones' "Miss You" in the trombone solo. "Charity"'s black-as-night riff sounds like a page from the Deep Purple or Black Sabbath songbooks, while sections of "Brother T" and "Truth" sport the melodic dual-guitar interplay of early Guns 'n' Roses.

It's not all crunch; the acoustic guitar lead of "Always" evokes Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," and the six-string jangle and Michael Stipe-ian vocal on "Cemetery St." ring like a R.E.M. B-side. For lagniappe, two roiling instrumental studio jams suggest a New Orleans-infused Radiohead.

"We wanted to have some instrumental stuff on the record to serve as breathing room, just to sit between the songs, give your ears a little break between the heavier stuff," says Mullins. "It's the same way with the more mellow, hypnotic songs; they give you a chance to come down before getting revved up again. We spent eight months working on the album; we committed a whole lot more time to it than the first album."

It's been three years since Mulebone's debut CD, 5 Shakes 7 Spirits -- and the band's sound has changed significantly. Mulebone founder and keyboardist John Gros left the band last year, to concentrate full-time on Papa Grows Funk. Mullins and his long-time friends and bandmates (guitarist Jimmy Robinson and drummer Mike Barras) decided to soldier on, and recruited bassist Benji Kozuch and second guitarist Mike Mayeux for the group. Mayeux's primarily known in town as a superb producer for bands such as the Continental Drifters, and he proved to be a crucial component of the band's more atmospheric, muscular sound.

"He's great with arrangements, a real musical guy who's real song conscious," says Mullins. "To have him in as a real collaborator, focusing on textures and dynamics, was amazing. I think he's got the best ears in town. Plus, the material had already been going in the direction toward a more guitar-oriented band. Right near the end of John's reign, he was playing more guitar than organ. And I write songs on guitar. But it's not real riff-oriented like Foo Fighters stuff, where the guitar is always with the drums. It's somewhat more song-oriented."

Perhaps most importantly, Mayeux's a terrific foil for lead guitarist Jimmy Robinson, who's never sounded better. Long known for his wizardry in Woodenhead and Twangorama, Robinson's six-string landscapes on Only in New Orleans put him in certifiable guitar-hero territory. It's not hyperbole to say that Robinson's huge, Les Paul-carved paths and crackling tones on tracks like "Angel" sound like some of Jimmy Page and Slash's best work. What's even more impressive is the fact that there's no studio trickery involved in Robinson's flights.

"There's always guitar overdubs on an album like this, but a lot of that real ethereal, sonic stuff is just him," says Mullins. "It sounds like it's four layers, but it's just Jimmy messing around near the end of a take, just like he's on a gig."

Mullins uses a similar approach throughout the album. Since Mulebone's inception, Mullins has often made his trombone sound like an electric guitar, by using a wah-wah pedal and running it through a guitar amp. It's a unique approach and sound, but Mullins is well aware of the danger of coming off like a gimmick-led band. So while he pulls out a squawking wah-fueled solo on "King Kong,' now it's pure trombone most of the time, with his pure and sweet lines on songs like "Cemetery" sounding right at home in the context of a rock band. "I don't want to use the effects if I don't have to," says Mullins. "I always want to use it in a tasteful way, but only when it needs to be there. Now, it's more of a natural fit."

click to enlarge 'I can't deny that rock music is something I want to do. No matter what, I'll always listen to rock music, I'm influenced by it, and I grew up liking it.' -- Mark Mullins (center) of Mulebone, Bonerama and Harry Connick Jr.'s band. - JENNIFER BAGERT
  • Jennifer Bagert
  • 'I can't deny that rock music is something I want to do. No matter what, I'll always listen to rock music, I'm influenced by it, and I grew up liking it.' -- Mark Mullins (center) of Mulebone, Bonerama and Harry Connick Jr.'s band.
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