Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hot Day at the Zoo: Stringin Unity Along Sat April 17

Hot Day at the Zoo played in Unity, Me last night at the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts. If you have never experienced this band, as was the case with me prior to last night, I highly recommend going to see them open for Railroad Earth Thursday, May 13th in Portland. Hot Day at the Zoo as I saw them last night is Jon Cumming (banjo, dobro, vocals), Michael Dion (guitar, harmonica, vocals,) Jed Rosen (upright bass, vocals), and JT Lawrence (mandolin, vocals). If you are into the bluegrass scene then I would compare them to Yonder Mountain String Band in some ways (even playing a few of the same traditional tunes), although if Yonder has their heads in the clouds then Hot Day at the Zoo have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Their sound is so full of earthy soul, traditional bluegrass, and a certain unique element that leads their fans to describe their sound as “zoograss”.

One of the first aspects of their dynamic sound that struck me was their exquisitely high level of energy. Bluegrass often has elements of solidarity and soul combined with extended jamming, but HDATZ lead me to wonder how bluegrass can be so badass… I was almost headbanging at one point! The band is exquisitely capable of pushing their music to higher and higher levels of intensity using a traditional (bluegrass) medium of expression of intense emotionality and spirituality. Jeff Austin, mandolin player of Yonder Mountain, once said “bluegrass is as old as dirt” and I think Hot Day at the Zoo have found a way to bring a deeply traditional sound into the modern scene like none other. I think the banjo is a an iconic example of this; Cumming is an excellent picker able to elicit almost alternative sounds from a most traditional instrument. Songs played included “No Expectations” originally by the Rolling Stones, “Foxy Lady” the infamous Jimi tune (INCREDIBLE interpretation of this song… loved it!), and many of their own tunes including “Long Way Home”, “Mercy of the Sea”, and Cumming’s “Fire Down the Road”. Influences include many traditional bluegrass songs, the Dead, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash.

Most of the band has been playing for seven years, with the exception of Lawrence who joined about a year and half ago. However, they play with a kind of cohesion and chemistry that is so infectious that you, the audience, feel like part of the family. The mandolin is often so extreme and vibrant (paired with those wonderful “mandolin faces”) and downright pretty that you can’t avoid being swept away. The ability of the mandolin and banjo to blend, and then duel, and then become one again really blew my mind. Their music as a whole is so full of earthiness and quintessence that it literally invokes images of an almost desert peacefulness; vast, wide open spaces where man is humbled. Some aspects of this solid sound include the bassist’s jazzy references. Rosen alternated between a gorgeous traditional upright bass and “Black Betty”; an electric standing bass that he had purchased that day at Down Home Music in Waterville, ME (yay for supporting local business!). When I asked Rosen about the differences between the two he mentioned that the traditional upright was, “naturally acoustic, more organic, and slappable” while the electric was, “a whole new experience and really requires adjusting the way I play. It has a different tone and a rounder sound that really fills the chords.” Apparently it doesn’t work with the slapping style however as, “I slapped the E string right off of it today!” The audience’s reaction to the new toy; “That bass just put a shot put through my chest!” (thanks to Noah S).

Again, HDATZ’s real power is in their ability to become their music and collectively control the audience. The mandolin serenades and lifts you, the bass grounds you, the twang of the banjo (personally my favorite instrument of all time) moves you, and the acoustic guitar and elements of harmonica hold it all together. And please don’t forget their ability to beautifully belt out tunes that invoke and fulfill the needs of the human soul. In fact, Dion, who plays the guitar and harmonica and sings, also plays a really incredible instrument called the cajon that has a lot of history to it. It essentially looks like a wooden box that Dion plays beats on, but that becomes a percussion sound I have never before experienced. When asked about it Dion said, “It’s a traditional Afro Peruvian instrument that essentially has an internal snare drum. Its really an entire drum kit in a box”. Look it up folks; combining solidarity, history, and culture… I love it! The elements of traditionality in their music bring the human psyche to a feel good frenzy as only great bluegrass can… but HDATZ keeps an edgier feel to their music that is a new element for me and really keeps the listener interested. Their use of suspenseful pauses accents their music and allows it to overload your senses. As a band HDATZ combines jazz and classical references with a unique zoograss sound. I highly, highly recommend seeing this band live; remember: Thursday, May 13th they open up for Railroad Earth in Portland, ME… it’s going to be an existential experience.

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