Is it bluegrass? Ragtime? Jazz? Is it a string band? A jam band? A folk band?
“Well, it’s…um, I don’t really know,” contemplates Jon Cumming, lead singer of New England quartet Hot Day at the Zoo, referring to the group’s “Zoograss” sound. “It was a fan who penned it.”
The term is fitting, in a way, but like “turkey bacon” or “flying fish” or even “Microsoft Works,” it contains a certain degree of inherent contradiction.
“We have bluegrass instrumentation,” Cumming says. “With the banjo, upright bass and all that stuff. But we’re not a bluegrass band, per se. We tow the line with the music, but we kinda created our own gig with our instruments and are uncomfortable calling ourselves a bluegrass band, because we’re really not. But, we’re close enough, I guess, so it fits. Sort of.”
If you’re a fan of Phish style jam, the unconventional allure of Johnny Cash, the technical prowess of Charles Mingus and the songwriting synergy of Garcia/Weir, then the music stylings of Hot Day at the Zoo might be right up your alley.
Hailing from Lowell, Massachusetts, the group (comprised of Jon Cumming on banjo and Dobro, Michael Dion on guitar and harmonica, Jed Rosen on upright bass and JT Lawrence on mandolin) is a collaborative effort in which all four members contribute vocals, songwriting, musical development and widely varying instrumental talents. To be sure, the occasional roaring harp, rhythm-heavy harmonica or sweetly soaring acoustic percussion helps to create a unique sound that is decidedly “Not bluegrass, per se.”
“I think we all have different influences, individually, that we have brought to the table,” says Cumming. “Mike and I are the main songwriters, so we bring a lot of songwriter stuff to the table. I’m really into The Grateful Dead. Jed is a jazz player, so he brings a jazz element to the band. JT brings the string element. So, you’ve got a little of everything from the Dead to Monroe, jazz to folk to rock, you name it.”
“Our music making process is not rocket science, because it’s never a solo effort. Mike and I will bring a rough idea–a basic chord, a basic melody to the band, and from there, the four of us as a group arrange the tune. Then we play it live, and from there we come back and tweak it and chip away at it.”
Through this process, Hot Day at the Zoo, brings forth a sound and energy that is bigger than all of them, but still, “not bluegrass, exactly.”
“Our sound and our whole gig is pretty organic in the way it developed,” says Cumming. “From not a lot of practice early on, but just playing live, we kept a real open attitude about it. That’s where the Dead influence came in. We just let the music be the leader, not pulling it but letting it take us where it wanted to go.”
With two lineup changes since its inception, the band has evolved and matured both in style and methodology.
“Lately we’ve been really buckling down and tightening up,” says Cumming. “Arranging a lot more, to our and our fans’ benefit, I think. It’s good, when you’re developing, to keep a free mind to it but at some point you have to buckle down”
And buckle down they have, with their latest album, Zoograss (which was recorded live at The Waterhole in Saranac Lake, NY).
Let’s face it—live albums are often a hard sell. Labels aren’t too hip on them, and the sound is often sketchy, leaving people wonder what it was they just listened to, and why.
Zoograss is not one of those albums.
“Expect to hear four guys playing their asses off and singing their hearts out. People respond to us. Our demographic is pretty wide. At any of our shows you’ll see young people from teens to 70s or 80s. We appeal to a broad range, but probably we’re appealing mostly to the 20-30 year olds. You know, young kids go out more.”
With raw in-your-face punk energy coupled with rootsy folk and hard-rocking funk, it’s no wonder that people—from the PBR-swilling, mud-flap beer guzzlers to the patchouli crowd to the MIILFS—are all represented at a HDATZ show. Of course, those groups may not agree on just what Zoograss is, but one thing’s for sure: They know they like it.
So, the next time you’re in the mood for some “not exactly bluegrass,” Just grab a brew, a dry martini or a freshly-squeezed screwdriver and enjoy the ubiquitously cool sounds of Hot Day at the Zoo.