September 4, 2008


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Bluegrass untamed
Hot Day at the Zoo go into the wild
By Dana Unger

Seeing a Hot Day at the Zoo performance in person, you start to get the feeling that this isn’t your typical bluegrass band. With a sound that could have stepped out of O’ Brother Where Art Thou? if Dave Matthews had been directing the film, Hot Day at The Zoo are committed to making foot-stomping, bass-thumping bluegrass rock music, or, as their fans have dubbed it, “ZooGrass” music. Vocalist and guitarist Michael Dion, explains the origins of the term: “It’s sort of the whole concept of a zoo and wild animals, in that it’s really loose really wild, always new. Every show is an experiment, and trust me, no one has ever accused us of being a polished act.”

The progressive four-string band, which includes David Cleaves on mandolin and vocals, Jon Cumming on banjo, dobro, and vocals, Jed Rosen on upright bass and vocals, and Michael Dion, grew out of Lowell, Mass., almost five years ago, playing local shows and cultivating a devoted fan base.

“We had a special following since the beginning,” Cleaves said. “With each show, that we do, it’s another step, it’s progress.”

That progress has led to their latest accomplishment, opening for The Band’s Levon Helm at the Lowell Summer Music Series on Sept. 4.

“We are beyond psyched for the show,” Dion said. “We’ve opened for some great bands, but to play before Helm, whose work is such a big influence for me, is incredible.”

Recently, the guys have become mainstays on the festival scene, performing last summer at New York’s Snoedown Music Festival, the Mountain Jam IV, String Fling, the Empire State Brew Festival, the Good Omens Music Festival, and the Sterling Stage Folk Festival. This summer alone has already seen them play the Hooka Summer #12 Festival in Ohio and A Bear’s Picnic Festival in Pennsylvania. Though new to playing large arenas and festivals, the band says that they are enjoying the experience.

“For me, it’s where I’m supposed to be,” Cleaves said. “To play in front of so many fans that enjoy good music — I feel at home up there on stage.”

Dion agreed that the festival crowd is a whole other animal than the bar scene.

“A lot of these people at these big festivals are hearing us for the first time and are appreciative of the music. I think in Boston, they really never caught on.”

“You really have to build up your crowd for a long time there,” Cleaves agreed.

“The crowds out in Ohio and the Midwest seem to appreciate this new bluegrass sound that’s happening much more,” Dion said.

With their sophomore EP, Long Way Home, now out, Hot Day at The Zoo have been busy testing out the new tracks on their audiences.

“We’ve been playing those songs fairly steadily out of our live shows as well as doing some unreleased material,” Dion said. “A lot of the songs have been cultivated out of our live shows and some stuff is material I’ve held onto to for several years that got sort of put on the back burner.”

Fresh from recording the CD and planning two tours in February and April this year, you would think that would be enough to be a full-time career for the guys, but no. “We still are all holding down our day jobs,” said Dion, a high school English teacher in Lowell. “Though I have to say that I’d love for this to be my last year teaching.”