Hot Day at the Zoo
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Hot Day at the Zoo

Lowell, Massachusetts, United States | INDIE

Lowell, Massachusetts, United States | INDIE
Band Alternative Bluegrass


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This band has not uploaded any videos



" 2/07"

Hot Day at the Zoo, The Courtyard Bar & Grill, Lowell, MA - 1/20
Chad Berndtson
"Who are you going to see?" my buddy asks.

"Hot Day at the Zoo. Bluegrass. Local, from Lowell. Fun as all hell," is my reply, heading out to face the first blindingly cold night of the year.

"Hot Day at the Zoo. Hmm."

A beat.

"Great name for a bluegrass band."

Indeed, it is, especially one that plays bluegrass like rockers. The music in its purest, string-band forms needs no added emotional heft or dynamics, but just as, say, the Bad Plus approach piano-trio jazz with a rocker's subversion and aplomb, so do these fleet-fingered pickers infuse the music of Monroe, Flatt, Scruggs, and all the rest.

What does a hot day at a zoo sound like? A little like it feels: good, loud, sweaty times, heavy on carnality and outsized personality, a little ripe and stinging in the nostrils. David Amram, an occasional HDATZ sit-in guest and an old-school cohort of Jack Kerouac, is among many who'd agree.

It's also "tasty," as founder and guitarist/harmonica player/vocalist Michael Dion is fond of saying. He likes his bluegrass with forkfuls of Nirvana, Bob Dylan, and urban blues, and he figures you might, too. He also figures you'd dig a group of bluegrass musicians with respective backgrounds in blues, classical, and all kinds of other worldly sounds.

HDATZ sprawls and folds in plenty of flavors without making "polyglot" a necessary adjective. And the three-set show is their specialty: build momentum in the first, slay in the second, exhaust in the third. Everyone goes home tired and satisfied, and each song makes the beer taste a little bit better.

This evening's occasion was the band's fourth anniversary, at a local bar--a cozy, unpretentious drinker's joint. It was was sparsely populated around 9 p.m. but by the time the music kicked off around 10:15 was packed and ready to whoop it up. What I thought of most was that Mountain Tracks/Yonder Mountain String Band recording in which the band pauses to check the "yee haw" factor of the room, and this room was "yee hawing" plenty.

This year has all the makings of a breakout for HDATZ: the band's expanding its national focus to include Colorado (this month), and was recently added to snoe.down, in some primo festival slots to boot. Regular local gigs couple with a gradual, national progression and the booking of key residencies to zero in on the Zoograss-loving heads who'd dig it the most.

The group is heavily Dead-influenced--as a bluegrass unit, more so Garcia and Co. than by the bluegrass forebears who influenced and inspired Garcia. If there's but one downside to HDATZ at this juncture, it's reasonable to think that because of their songwriting skills and extraordinary verve, the members' reliance on the Dead catalog may become a hindrance as they expand their fanbase.

For now, the key Dead and Dead-associated breakouts were useful as customer service tools, and along with the predictable ("Big River," "I Know You Rider," "Cumberland Blues"), they tried on a "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and a lip-smacking "Me and My Uncle."

In the latter tune, especially, so many rock bands go a strict roots and country route, doing little to expand or detour from the Dead's version. HDATZ's lead-up to the first verse was similar to the Dead's, but more of a a tension-and-release build up, as if they'd reached up and pulled the song out of the sky rather than rode up alongside it when its rhythm was already galloping along.

In fact, it's those little twists--and more exciting one, like a wily, cry-in-your-beer version of Nirvana's "Come as You Are"--that make more straight-covered versions of "Rider" and, say, Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" pale by comparison. For some groups, "I Know You Rider" is the unquestioned, fail-safe showstopper. For this group, it's actually gilding the lilly.

So, a nudge for HDATZ, as if one were needed? Keep the Dead, but go for some less-traveled choices--it'd be great to see what this crew could do with "Mexicali Blues"--and don't be afraid to make such crackling originals as "Pablo," "Morning Light" and "Wackin' Off" (the night's blustery encore) set pieces.

In the meantime, keep us warm on cold nights (or after a trip down the mountain at snoe.down), and going back for another round. We could use more bands like you.


"Boston Globe 8/07"

Boston Globe Feature Article 8.3.06

FROM BLUEGRASS TO ZOOGRASS: Acoustic has never sounded so electric. At first, Lowell ``bluegrass" group Hot Day at the Zoo looks like a bluegrass band. The instruments are bluegrass (all strings). The fast-paced, finger-pickin' tunes start out sounding like bluegrass. Even the slight drawl in singer Michael Dion's voice seems like traditional bluegrass. But listen a wee bit longer and it is anything but.

``Imagine Earl Scruggs and his buddies in a bar fight. That's what we sound like," said Dion. ``In a nutshell, we're using the bluegrass lineup, but we're coming from a rock 'n' roll, jazz, ragtime, and urban vibe. We call it zoograss."

That zoograss sound made the ears of members of the Holliston summer concert committee perk up when they popped the Zoo's CD into its player.

``They were urban and gritty and bluegrassy and rootsy," said committee member Sue Peterson. ``We liked it so much we decided to book them right then."

Thus, on Tuesday, this high-energy quartet takes the stage at Goodwill Park as part of the town's weekly free concert series. Call it a concert or call it the sounds of the Ozarks go for a carnival ride.

Dion, a Lowell native who sings and does most of the songwriting, mixes in Latin beats, rock rhythms, and boozy, broken-hearted, and sittin'-at-the-bar lyrics. He discovered bluegrass playing with lifelong pickers in -- of all places -- Seattle.

``Lowell is a blue-collar town, a little rough around the edges," he said. ``I try to harness that energy and mood in the music."
- Boston Globe

"Press Republican 11/07"

Contributing Writer

SARANAC LAKE -- The high-energy acoustic band Hot Day at the Zoo is slated to hit the Waterhole in Saranac Lake Saturday.
The four-piece group from Boston plays a combination of bluegrass, rock 'n roll and blues.
"It's bluegrass, but it's a little crazy," said Jon Cumming, who plays banjo and dobro and writes an occasional song.
Lead singer, harmonica player and guitarist Michael Dion said they're "like a rock 'n roll band in disguise."
In addition to Dion and Cumming, the band features David Cleaves on mandolin and Jed Rosen on upright bass and vocals.
Hot Day at the Zoo band members call their form of music "ZooGrass."
"It's a high-energy, gritty, urban bluegrass with strong elements of folk, blues, ragtime and jazz," says their press release. "Simply put, Hot Day at the Zoo embodies what it means to put down your troubles for a while and get caught up in a laid-down groove that's sure to bring a smile to your face and a sway to your hips."
This is the band's second trip to the Tri-Lakes; last winter, they played at the weekend-long snoe.down festival in Lake Placid.
During that show, Zoo jammed on one of the smaller stages to an enthusiastic crowd. Rosen showed his sense of humor by dropping his trousers and playing stand-up bass in his boxers for an extended period.
"Animated and playful while others are soulful and earnest, Rosen adds high harmonies, love harmonies and a bit of country corn to the proceedings," reads Rosen's bio on the group's Web site.
Actually, the snoe.down festival was a big step for the band. It was after that show that they were signed on by their current managers, Northeast Productions.
"It's huge," Dion said. "It's the biggest step we've taken."
Mainly, Hot Day at the Zoo has been concentrating their shows in the Northeast, including many in New York towns such as Ithaca, Syracuse and Utica. They hope to tour nationwide in about a year, Dion said.
The group has been together five years, with band members ranging in age from the early 30s to early 40s. They appeal to a broad-spectrum audience, from those looking to sit down and hear some quality music to others who want to have a few drinks and spend the night dancing.
While most of their recorded songs are in the three-to-five-minute range, during live shows they play longer songs, at least longer blends of songs.
"We take a lot of tunes and run one into another," Cumming said. "We do a medley of tunes."
It's an approach reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, both Cumming and Dion said.
But Hot Day at the Zoo is not a Dead cover band by any stretch of the imagination. About 80 percent of the songs they play when live are originals. The rest are cover songs upon which they put their own twist. If they play a Dead tune, or even one from Johnny Cash, it's hardly recognizable as such.
"We take that kind of approach to the music," Cumming said, comparing his band to the Dead. "We go where the music takes us instead of being rigid."
They also stop short of the jam band category, preferring not to fall into the pattern of playing long, drawn-out songs that get boring.
"We're fun people," Cumming said. "We have a good time during the show. We definitely don't toe the line in terms of sticking to traditional music."

- Press Republican

"Lowell Sun 6/07"

Hot Day gives a shout-out to Kerouac...

Hot Day gives a shout-out to Kerouac...

By Doreen Manning, Sun Correspondent


Hot Day at the Zoo (HDATZ) and David Amram come together Saturday at the Revolving Museum to help kick off a summer of Kerouac-inspired events happening throughout the city.

Hot Day at the Zoo is a four piece bluegrass-inspired group of down-home boys who sound like a southern bar band that left through the back door and gloriously ended up in Lowell. Their combination of guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass come together in what they call a "zoograss" blend.

What's zoograss you ask? Imagine, if you will, a little bluegrass, mix in some urban attitude, throw in a pinch of rock, folk, ragtime and jazz and you'll come out the other side with a thumping musical adventure.

If you haven't heard of David Amram during his 50-plus years on the international music radar screen, his portfolio ranges from roles as accomplished musician, theater and film score composer, award winning documentary producer/conductor/songwriter/author - just to name a few.

According to Michael Dion, whose duties in HDATZ include guitar, harmonica and vocals, the idea for this combined bill started at the Lowell Folk Fest in 2004. "(Amram) caught a piece of our set at the now defunct Evos Arts, and later on we all did some impromptu pickin' out on the corner of Middle and Palmer streets till the wee hours of the morning. His superior musicianship in combination with his truly magical personality is something to behold," says Dion.

Amram is no stranger to crossing boundaries in music. With more than 100 orchestral and chamber works under his belt, he is also accomplished in French horn, piano, guitar, numerous flutes and whistles, percussion, and a variety of folkloric instruments from 25 countries. Listed by BMI as one of the 20 most performed composers of concert music in the United States since 1974, Amram is also the author of Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac (Thunders Mouth Press, 2002), a book which describes their work together from 1956 until Kerouac's death in 1969. Amram also had the honor of a Kerouac collaboration in the first ever jazz poetry reading in New York City in 1957, and a subsequent film in 1959 which combined Amram's chamber music and jazz with Kerouac's narration Pull My Daisy. As a pioneer of what is now called world music, this maestro of melody has a unique approach to music that has found an international audience.

According to Dion, the one thing that truly connects HDATZ's music to Amram's is what he calls the inherent fusion he sees in Amram's work. "It's the idea of combining two or more types of music in order to create something new. We may use different mediums -- in this case instrumentation -- but we both approach music with a free-form attitude where mood plays a major role in a song's interpretation. It's here that we find a common musical ground."

Revolving Museum, 22 Shattuck St., Lowell (, come feel the fusion yourself on June 16, from 7-10 p.m.

- Lowell Sun

"Middlesex Beat 7/06"


By Dermot Whittaker

W ELCOME to the Grog, y'all," says mandolin player David Cleaves, as he greets Thursday night's audience at the Newburyport restaurant and bar. From the first song, it is apparent that the evening's entertainmenta four-man locomotive with vocals called Hot Day At The Zoowill be fueled by the pint. Says the group's principal singer and songwriter Michael Dion, "I think people like the energy. I've seen so many bands that just seem so lethargic, just everyday, run-of-the-mill. Our stuff's just balls-to-the-wall."

"Balls-to-the-wall" is a phrase one associates with Harper's Ferry or the Chit Chat Club, not Club Passim or the Lowell Folk Festival. Hot Day at the Zoo (HDATZ or the Zoo for short) has played them all. The music, says Joey Newman, a manager and bartender at The Grog "would appeal to anybody from an old-school bluegrass lover to a 20-year-old kid in a bar," because of "the way they funk it all out."

Hot Day At The Zoo consists of Cleaves on mandolin, Dion on guitar and harmonica, Jon Cumming on banjo (formerly on dobro), and Jed Rosen on upright bass. Their instruments suggest old-time string-band music; their rhythms and tempos are those of bluegrass as often as not; and their songwriting and singing have a let-loose, country or jug band quality. The band members' adopted mountain accents, inseparable from the style of music they play, are cut with the clipped, derisive speech of Lowell, Chelmsford, and Amherst. Fans often latch onto the country and bluegrass elements, as well as the band's driving energy that can be a revelation to pubsters who've never been up all night with a bunch of pickers. But the band members are circumspect about their roots.

"The instruments created the music. The instruments found us, " says Cleaves. His mandolin, which he took up five years ago, was in fact a gift. Adds Cummings, "We're a bluegrass medium, so it's pretty easy for people to straight up say, 'Oh, I love bluegrass.' They see it, but then when they hear it ... "

When they hear it well, on their first appearance at the Grog, HDATZ wowed a 10 p.m. open-mike audience, first from the men's room where they were loudly rehearsing and then from the performance area where they were called back for one song after another. Fans, staff, and the band members still recall that night, which ended in an off-premises hoot at four in the morning.

Together since 2003, Hot Day at the Zoo is a leading example of a younger band that found its way to traditional music through rock and roll. The usual gateway is an album. For Cumming it was Lynard Skynard's down-home effort Nuthin' Fancy. For Dion and Cleaves, it was Jerry Garcia's old-time and bluegrass collaboration Old And In The Way. Rosen's training was in jazz and classical. After listening to the Zoo live, you quickly sense that the conventions and traditions of bluegrass and its cousin old-time music matter less to the band members than the directness and adaptability of the string-band format. HDATZ creates a musical space with plenty of room for personal songwriting, musical virtuosity, hollerin' and carryin' on. To say they play by ear isn't selling them shortin every song, they aim to spark a fire and keep it roaring by grabbing chance innovations like kindling, singing loud and clear, and playing their damnedest.

Original songs are front and center: songs about burning pallets, partying, and telling tales in the empty brick mill; songs about a week of possible paternity, full of panicky concern, proffered tenderness, and threatened beatings to the working stiff who's supplanted the singer as daddy; songs of emotionally distant mothers turned inaccessible through death; songs of good friends recalled dimly through a fog of brutal construction work, fast fighting, and booze.

Cleaves says the band played 126 shows last year and another 30 to 40 house parties. All that playing has fostered at least one old-time music

Portions of this review appeared as "Hot Day At The Zoo," Middlesex Beat, July 2006. All rights reserved.

tradition: when the Zoo covers a song, they make it their own. This is true for standards like their swinging versions of "Sitting On Top of the World" and "Cripple Creek"; old social comment songs like John Prine's "Paradise" or Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons"; classics like the Grateful Dead's "West Texas Bound" and Bob Dylan's "Mama You Been On My Mind"; or rock and roll numbers like "That's All Right" (which they combine with the "Big Railroad Blues") and Johnny Cash's "Big River." The band has fun with the odd Nirvana or Beatles tune. Where the Beatles approach and retreat from a key change in the bridge of "I Saw Her Standing There," HDATZ follows through and ends the measure singing in a key a half step higher -- a simple choice that makes the song fresh and, frankly, country.

Dion, who writes and sings most of the group's originals, is not aware of anyone else who sets the attitude his native Lowell to this kind of music. Not that his songs necessarily start as urban portraits. "Honestly, they're mostly written about girls and my experiences with them," he says, "and then I tie it into the setting that I either met them in or was with them in." Dion's voice has less hoot and holler than in typical bluegrass or country singing; his vocals are gutsier, bluesier, and more wailing. His hand is a blur on rhythm guitar, and his harmonica playing complements the melody on a few songs. Some of his songslike "Mama," about being at loose ends and looking for homeare reminiscent of the Grateful Dead. Other songs are wails of pain for the sheer exhilarating hell of it. Imagine Tom Waits singing "She had a smile as cool as Tuesday," and you'll understand where his blues song "Devil Woman" is going (or maybe notthe song's bass-driven creep-and-crawl switches to a double-time rave-up at the end). "Cuando Me Vaya," a Spanish language original with a convincing Latin feel, shows a bit of Dion's versatility as a songwriter. He spent a year teaching English in Ecuador, where he first started singing with his host family's band.

Cumming, of Chelmsford, has a voice less resounding than Dion's, but cleaner, almost winsome, and carrying enough of his Massachusetts accent to color his crowd-pleasing songs "Old Mill" and "Long Way Home." These songs are more traditional in form and subject matter than Dion's. Cumming's dobro playing gave the band a very classic country sound for three years until a recent personnel shake up left the banjo spot open. "When we were trying out other guys, I was going out of my mind," he says. "They were great musicians. They just did not know what the band needed. They were bringing in too much tradition." Cumming's banjo playing puts him in the thick of things musically. He plays in a bluegrass style or strums chords on the more jug-band type tunes. As with the rest of the players, Cumming's soloing seems to be more about following sound where it leads than displaying a lightning technique in strict time.

Cleaves, now of Lowell but originally from California, often serves as spokesman on stage and occasionally adds a deep, resonant note to the choral responses. "I'm not much of a singer," he says, "Haven't found my voice yet." His voice may well be the mandolin, on which he has developed a distinctive style. His thoughtful picking is sometimes a bit behind the beat, perhaps intentionally, but his tremolo sails along with the music, particularly on a spacious number like "I Know You Rider." Soloing confidently at any tempo, Cleaves typifies HDATZ's approach. By listening intently to what's going on and responding with his instrument, he adds intensity to the music at all times.

A crucial element in the mix is bassist Rosen, originally from Amherst. A graduate of Keene State College, Rosen majored in music, studying with Don Baldini who he says showed him how to approach the upright bass "not just as a solo instrument but as a foundation for an ensemble, and playing in jazz bands." Behind the driving rhythm of the group's cover of "That's All Right, Mama" and the "Spoonful" riff that starts "Devil Woman" is Rosen's dead-on bass playing. He doesn't just keep time, he commands it, setting the pace for any given song. He adds a rhythmic percussive flutter to some songs, beats on the body for the jug band tunes, quotes "Shortenin' Bread" or "Owner of a Lonely Heart" as the situation warrants, adds harmony and variety to the longer numbers. His soloing shows some of his music-school chops, mostly thrown in for fun or as part of a space jam the band occasionally finds itself in. Animated and playful where the others are soulful and earnest, Rosen adds high harmonies, low harmonies, and a bit of country corn to the proceedings. "He brings out that hillbilly side in us," says Dion.

Hot Day At The Zoo's first CD of original material, Cool As Tuesday, is available through the band's website and at their shows. The band has seven New England appearances (including four in Massachusetts) booked for July and August. Calendar of upcoming gigs, MP3s, lyrics, and other vital information is available at the band's website,

Portions of this review appeared as "Hot Day At The Zoo," Middlesex Beat, July 2006. All rights reserved. - Middlesex Beat

"Jambase 9/05"

Hot Day At The Zoo: Cool As Tuesday (self-released)
Hard to believe a band with so much cracked corn soul is from Massachusetts. Precedents include the Hackensaw Boys, pre-electric Gourds, and Uncle Tupelo with more moonshine in their engine - deeply affable string music played by pros, but with a more fists and boozy bonhomie than most. “Mama” is something Old & In The Way might have recorded, a sighing sawdust kicker sung with unvarnished heart. “Anna Maribel” boogies like an old Sun Studios 45. The harmonica fueled Tin Pan Alley ditty “Bid You Goodnight” and Latin tangents like “Cuando Me Vaya” hint at a Sir Douglas Quintet or NRBQ range waiting in the shadows. A nifty fun house, devil woman lament hidden at the end puts a pleasant stain on the album’s title. There’s homebrewed magic here and returning for more swigs has only convinced me further of its kick. Take notice, Hot Day is gonna be around for a while. - by Dennis Cook

"Boston Globe 1/08"

When we think of a hot day at the zoo, we picture lethargic animals and sweating visitors. But this Hot Day at the Zoo is very cool, and anything but lethargic. The frenetic foursome from Lowell peels off a gritty urban-bluegrass sound laced with folk, blues, ragtime, and jazz - a mix their fans call "ZooGrass." Celebrating five years, the string band is at the Lizard Lounge to play original tunes from its first full-length release, "Cool as Tuesday" (we told you they were cool), as well as tracks from a forthcoming EP and covers of Elvis, Nirvana, and the Dead. 21+ 8 p.m. $10. Lizard Lounge, 1667 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. 617-547-0759.

- June Wulff

"Boston Phoenix 1/08"

Lowell is known for Kerouac, its historic canal system, and the Industrial Revolution, not the “high and lonesome” sound of bluegrass. But the music first minted in the Kentucky hills has a grip on the Spindle City, thanks to relative newcomers to the style Hot Day at the Zoo.

“We didn’t pick bluegrass; it picked us,” says the band’s mandolinist, a gregarious bear of a guy named David Cleaves. “I knew Mike [Dion], our guitarist and main songwriter, when I was living out in Seattle. He moved to the East Coast, and after a while I moved out here to Lowell to be close to my son, and Mike and I lived in the same house. Neither one of us had a job, so we thought we should write songs. And the instruments we had to write them on were the guitar and mandolin, so they sounded like bluegrass songs.”

Hot Day at the Zoo, who celebrate their fifth anniversary and the release of a new EP at Lizard Lounge this Saturday, came together with the addition of two banjoists and an upright-bassist whom Cleaves and Dion met at open mikes at Penuche’s Ale House, a jam-band hangout in Nashua, New Hampshire. “So with guitar, mandolin, upright, and banjo,” observes Cleaves, “we were suddenly a bluegrass band.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Bluegrass has been catching the ears of increasingly roots-conscious high-school and college-age listeners since the turn of the millennium. But not necessarily in its pure form, which is packed with zippy virtuosic solos supporting vocalists warbling yarns of rural life and Jesus in high, arching nasal tones. A new generation of musicians — one raised with the influences of classic, alternative, and punk rock as well as new-school country music — has taken up the genre. Some, like 12-year-old guitarist Will Jones and his 16-year-old mandolinist sister Laura Leigh of Virginia’s Cana Ramblers, do come from the sticks. But the norm among new bluegrass bands is closer to the chemistry of King Wilkie, popular twentysomethings from suburban Charlottesville, Virginia, whose influences include the Byrds, Nico, Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen as well as Bob Wills. For Hot Day at Zoo, the list of inspirations covers Nirvana, Bob Dylan, and reggae. Their live sound in particular favors an energy and sparseness closer to punk rock than to backwoods primitivism.

Hot Day at the Zoo and many other new-school bluegrass outfits are also finding their fans outside the regular circuit. “Our best audience is the jam scene,” says Cleaves. “We’ve heard, ‘That’s not the way bluegrass is supposed to be played,’ from some indignant older bluegrass fans who’ve heard us when we’ve opened shows for traditional bands. But, hey, we like what we do and our fans love it. The other guys in the band have started calling our music ‘zoograss.’ ”

Riding a trend whether they meant to or not, Hot Day at the Zoo get plenty of college and public radio exposure in the Northeast and down into the Carolinas and out as far west as Colorado, areas they’ve covered in their treks to clubs and festivals over the past few years. And their local audiences have continued to swell. There’s no shortage of girls in bandanas and skirts and guys in bib overalls, and there’s always some spin-dancing, the dervishy stuff you’d see at a Dead show or a Phish reunion. And there’s beer. A lot of beer. Massive quantities of beer get consumed. Add in the camaraderie and the increasing instrumental prowess that Dion, Cleaves, bassist Jed Rosen, and banjoist and dobro slinger Jon Cumming display on stage in the current four-man line-up and a Hot Day at the Zoo show amounts to a damn good time.

They got their name during the first rehearsal. Cleaves: “We had been practicing for about six hours in a back room at Mike’s dad’s house, and somebody said, ‘It smells like a hot day at the zoo back here.’ ”

And even as they celebrate the release of their second EP, which follows the 2005 album Cool As Tuesday, they’re at work on another full-length. “We think the songs we’re recording are capturing the band at a higher level,” Cleaves notes, “but we know we’re still going to grow as musicians and songwriters. We’ve just started to come into our own. We’re able to execute better solos than we were a few years ago and really stretch out live, so even the songs that are three or four minutes on a CD get to be nine or 10 minutes long on stage. And that gets the audience really into it. They have more time to dance, and they really like it when somebody takes a solo that really goes for it.”

The new EP, which a week before the Lizard gig was still looking for a name, does show a creative leap from Cool As Tuesday, which explored themes of loss and loneliness triggered by the death of Dion’s mother. The sound is more diverse, and the arrangements are more tightly meshed. “Gypsy Moon (The Raven)” blends a theme of wanderlust with the supernatural inspiration of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic masterpiece. Cleaves’s clip-clopping mandolin rhythm drives the story at a speedy, precise trot, and Dion’s vocal and harmonica nod toward the Minnesotan nicknamed Jack Frost. “Outside Looking In” is similarly Dylanesque, though it sounds as if moonshine were also a factor in its ragged-but-right performance. Cumming’s banjo comes to the fore in “The Wheel,” a road song that seems like an Appalachian version of the Buddhist cycle of life and death — though with, yes, a considerable helping of whiskey. And then there’s “Lost,” an up-tempo yarn of “a life gone wrong” that has the peppery spirit of an Irish drinking song.

Well, boozy insouciance does seem to be a quality Hot Day at the Zoo and their audience share. And the band’s plans call for more sharing. After the Lizard show, they’ve got a passel of shows in New England and New York State scheduled. You can find them all at

HOT DAY AT THE ZOO | Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave, Cambridge | January 26 | 617.547.0759

- Ted Drozdowski

"Hippo Press 9/08"

Bluegrass untamed -Hot Day at the Zoo go into wild

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.”
- By Dana Unger

"Lowell Sun 8/08"

HOT DAY finds a new place to hang their hat

Considering the genre's origins in the rural American South, the idea of a bluegrass band in the heart of a New England city most famous for its role in the Industrial Revolution seems a bit unlikely.

But Hot Day at the Zoo is more than just a Lowell band bringing bluegrass to music fans up and down the East Coast. The modern flair it adds to this age-old genre has made them a popular contender in the latest bluegrass resurgence among college-age hipsters and other like-minded fans.

Perfecting the sound it unleashed on its 2005 full-length Cool as Tuesday, HDATZ deliver another set of its self-proclaimed "zoograss" on its new EP Long Way Home. The run-time is painfully short -- less than 17 minutes, to be specific -- but thanks to its stellar musicianship and high production value courtesy of local maestro Bob Nash, the album will likely get the band noticed in the right circles and propel it forward to bigger and better things.

As expected, the trademark bluegrass elements are front and center -- banjo, mandolin, harmonica and upright bass, not to mention a healthy number of vocal harmonies -- but what resonates most is HDATZ's departure from its old influences.

Whether it's the punchy undercurrent of "Gypsy Moon" and "Lost," the near-perfect mellow hipness of the Grateful Dead-ified title track or the smoking solos in the finale "Wheel," HDATZ brings a contemporary sensibility to its sound that makes it likeable to even the most bluegrass-phobic listener.

Fading in from the depths of a storm, opener "Gypsy Moon" begins with lyrics that will make a lot of native Lowellians smirk in agreement: "I've been hating this here town since I was five years-old / I'm a lonesome forty-niner, babe, I'm a-going down the road / and coming back no more ..." For the next three minutes, vocalist Michael Dion sprinkles a tale of wanderlust with lines from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," the story effectively punctuated by mandolin, harmonica and banjo solos.

"Long Way Home" settles into a back porch rocking chair with a soft bed of mandolin and acoustic guitar, while "Lost" cranks up the tempo and smokes like a pig at a pork roast. "Outside Lookin' In" plays like an Irish pub sing-along, and "Wheel" closes things with a road-weary piece of advice: "Wheel, she rolls on forever / when you ain't got trouble, clear road you find / So I said my prayers, and I woke this morning / to the ones I left behind."

The album fades in a banjo solo that could seemingly go on forever, leaving the listener yearning for more of that zoograss magic.

HOT DAY AT THE ZOO opens for Levon Helm at Boarding House Park next Thursday night, Sept. 4, 7:30 p.m., as part of the Lowell Summer Music Series. - By Brett Cromwell, Sun Correspondent


Zoograss - LP - INTA Records (2010)
Long Way Home - EP - INTA Records (2008)
Cool as Tuesday - LP - Indie Release (2005)



Hot Day at the Zoo is Jon Cumming (banjo, dobro, vocals), Michael Dion (guitar, harmonica, vocals,) Jed Rosen (upright bass, vocals), and JT Lawrence (mandolin, vocals). Dion and Cumming are the band’s two main songwriters. Both, with distinctive personalities, offer enough stories to fill a catalogue of songs that are whole-hearted and full of sincerity. Add in Rosen, who’s technical prowess allows him to hold down the beat and push the music along, and Lawrence, who’s youthful energy and stellar musicianship fuel his strength in fulfilling each song’s missing piece, and the result is a band who humbly creates something bigger than any of themselves.

Hot Day at the Zoo is set to release their third album, Zoograss, on January 12, 2010 on their independent label INTA Records. Zoograss is a live album, recorded at The Waterhole in Saranac Lake, NY on February 14, 2009. It was mixed by Sir Bob Nash at Wonka Sound in Lowell, MA and mastered by Jay Frigoletto at ProMastering in Brookline, NH. Zoograss follows HDATZ's 2008 EP, Long Way Home, a dark and edgy album added to their collection that includes the wildly popular Cool As Tuesday.

In a venue so personally special to the band (Phish had Nectar’s, HDATZ has The Waterhole), and on a night when all the planets and stars seemed to align to create an ideal environment for the creative process, HDATZ recorded a special, representative performance. “That night at The Waterhole was one of those times that I knew from the first few notes that we were on point,” says Lawrence. “The energy exchange between us and the audience was incredible.” Zoograss is a true picture in time, capturing a band that has undergone transformations over the years, including two line-up changes, but has evolved and matured in their songwriting and live performance and is now tighter than ever before.

Zoograss brings HDATZ to life and proves that this is a band you must see live. “Expect to see four guys up on stage playing their asses off and singing their hearts out,” says Rosen. All four members play with so much vivacity and vigor that an abundance of both baby powder to keep dry and superglue to prevent their fingernails from falling off is necessary. Whether they’re headlining or performing as special guest support for artists including The Band’s Levon Helm, David Grisman, Leon Russell, moe., and Hot Buttered Rum, HDATZ connects with their audience through their defiant high energy on stage. With improvisations that give songs new shape, signature arrangements of covers, and many special guests, concertgoers may expect to never see the same show twice.

Not unlike the Garcia/Weir songwriting partnership, Dion and Cumming strike a balance that’s always signature. Zoograss illustrates the individuality of the two songwriters and the band’s ability as a whole to carry their stories. The track “Mercy of the Sea,” written by Dion, weighs in at over nine minutes on Zoograss. With imagery like, "Bones made of coral, saltwater in my veins, and a tidal wave of hope," this track required a great deal of complimentary energy and instrumental imagination from all four members who succeeded brilliantly. “‘Mercy of the Sea’ stretches things out and highlights the band’s dynamics and ability to speak to each other musically,” says Cumming. Quite the antithesis of this track is Cumming’s “One Day Soon,” three-plus minutes of direct, beautiful poetry: “With every mile I leave behind, it’s one more I can’t borrow.” “‘One Day Soon’ departs from our high-energy, jam-based mode, and tones it down some,” says Cumming. “For a tune like this, the song is the master and the band serves it well.”

Zoograss illustrates a new beginning for HDATZ who continue to develop exponentially. “Every week it seems we are breaking into new, uncharted territory with new songs, new ideas, and new aspirations,” says Dion. “This album is just a taste of what this band is capable of.”