Most nights, when members of an up and coming band step out on stage, it’s before dozens, or, if they’re lucky, maybe hundreds of people.
For Calgary rockers Zoo Lion, that is generally the case.
But then, there was the one night, the big night, when it was all different.
On July 14 last year, the four-piece Zoo Lion walked out onto the Saddledome stage and 14,000 people went crazy.
Admittedly, said Zoo Lion frontman Craig Aikman, most people thought it was Bon Jovi.
Zoo Lion, you see, had won a CJAY 92 radio contest to open for the international star at the ‘Dome. The same Zoo Lion – Aikman (vocals, guitar), Mark Heit (guitar), Matt Tysowski (bass) and Tyler Reimer (drums) – play Banff’s Rose & Crown, May 1.
Winning contests has been a mainstay for the band, as they’ve won a radio station songwriter showcase, a Big Rock Star contest and a Radio Star contest.
Some of their winnings went toward recording the band’s inaugural album, Telling Your People, while another win from Calgary’s 90.3 radio was used to record 2010’s Nothing Automatic.
“Winning some studio time prompted us to get going with an album sooner rather than later,” said Aikman. “We had some songs on the go and we wrote some other ones right in the studio.”
Having won some big band contests, Aikman said Zoo Lion will continue looking for them. “They keep advertising them, so we keep getting in on them. For the Bon Jovi one, they (CJAY) put out a call to enter a video.
“CJAY whittled them down, then Bon Jovi’s agent chose us. It’s opened doors and given us more notoriety. When you can say you’ve opened for Bon Jovi, people take you a little more seriously.”
Even when Zoo Lion won $25,000 in a radio contest in 2008, their biggest crowd to date saw them showcase at the event: about 500 people.
Opening for Bon Jovi, though, gave the young Calgarians a taste of the big time. They performed a half-hour set of Zoo Lion originals, took part in a sound check with Bon Jovi techs and soaked up the atmosphere.
“It was great,” said Aikman. “The whole day was awesome. We did a sound check, then Bon Jovi did a sound check, then we had to put all our gear back out on the stage and wait for the show to start.
“At the sound check, when you looked out, you saw a few people walking around and talking. But when we walked out to open, everyone went crazy, maybe they thought we were Bon Jovi.
“But I think we took advantage of it, we all felt really good about our performance and had nothing but good words after the show.”
The band even scored a tiny portion of the show’s merchandise table, so set out two kinds of t-shirts and their first CD.
While the Bon Jovi experience was valuable in that it gave Zoo Lion a glimpse of the big time, “in a way, it was kind of a bad thing,” said Aikman. “We want to get back there, but it was tough to go from the Saddledome to a rural bar in Alberta where there’s very few people.
“But we’ve already started on some new material and we’re looking forward to another album.”
Zoo Lion’ brand of rock puts a premium on Aikman’s strong, belt it out vocals, muscular rhythm from drums and bass and often sizzling guitar riffs.
A typical three-set night sees the band go big with originals while salting in covers by bands like Foo Fighters, Zeppelin and the Hip.
“The set kind of depends on the room,” said Aikman. “We try to get a feel for what people want and go with it. We were in Saskatoon recently and they only wanted our originals, which was great.”
The band has been together for four years now, with music and songs mostly the work of Aikman and Heit, who studied music at Red Deer College. Lyrics are written by Aikman, who said the work effort is split among the foursome. “Everybody brings something to the table and we work on arrangements together.”