Hot Day at the Zoo is a progressive bluegrass band, but Kearny, NJ and the Donegal Saloon are neither progressive nor bluegrass, yet somehow, the two make quite a match.
Just a stones throw outside New York City, Kearny is a fairly shady town that does a decent job covering up its sketchy scene with a cute main street. The Donegal Saloon is a hole in the wall bar, poorly marked and not particularly welcoming to newcomers- on the outside. Behind the dark, heavy door is an open room with an oval bar, and down-home faces filling the stools. It was mostly an older crowd, and the crew I expected to see at a Hot Day show hadn’t made their appearance yet.
Then my eyes landed on a leather cowboy hat, a few flannel button ups, a pair of boots- clearly, the act I had come to see. If I didn’t already know HDatZ, it would have been painfully obvious then, even though the local folks matched their suburban style fairly well. As the four men loaded their gear into the small back area and set up their “stage.”
The opening musician seemed like he was just messing around at first, but turned out to be thoroughly impressive and drew a large crowd. Just an acoustic guitar and a book of songs, the meager singer wailed out covers ranging from “They Love Each Other” (Grateful Dead) to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” (Otis Redding). He was energetic and soulful, a perfect way to introduce the electrified bluegrass.
Hot Day kicked off their set with a few high tempo selections, including a Carole King cover and their original “Sweet Baby (Boom Boom Boom).” They switched the line-up a little when mandolin player JT Lawrence stepped- or should I say, sat down- on a dobro-like lap guitar, which added a twangy, deep-southern vibe to their New England roots music. A few songs after all four Zoo-grassers got back on strings, the line-up switched again and guitarist Michael Dion switched to drums, a rhythmic part they don’t usually have. It was a great addition to their overall sound, but somewhat unnecessary in the over all performance; I found that the songs with drums we’re less exciting and I was missing Dion’s vocals and harmonica playing.
A short set break rejuvenated the thinning crowd and Hot Day riled people back up with a stellar cover of The Beatles’ “Get Back.” Second set was much more a dirt-kicker-upper in the way of song selection, and the boys kept it interesting with banjo-player Jon Cumming on dobro, but it was dramatically shorter than first set, even with the encore. Luckily, perhaps at the beckon of stand-up bass player Jed Rosen, they came back on about 15 minutes later and introduced their final song as a cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” They actually played Old Crow Medicine Show’s song “Wagon Wheel,” which I personally requested to Dion and which they haven’t played in over 5 years. A great show, well worth the trek out to dingy Kearny.
Excuse my terrible pictures, I took them with my phone and am no photographer.