By Chad Berndtson
December 01, 2008
Musical collaboration among pre-established units is tricky business,
and it's rare to arrive at that special level: the place where you
find a meeting of minds so potent that a union of two or more styles,
eras, backgrounds, or whatever else becomes a whole and not just
co-working parts. In recent years, the meeting of, say, Iron and
Wine's Sam Beam with Calexico comes to mind. Or maybe, even though
it's been six years now, that magical tour where the Flaming Lips
backed Beck and definitely achieved something approaching zambi.
To that special category you'd definitely have to add Donna Jean &
the Tricksters, a meeting of Dead-weaned hearts and minds that's so
far produced show after show of transcendent moments, and a terrific,
self-titled 2008 album to boot. The bandwhich combines Donna Jean,
the Zen Tricksters core, Mookie Siegel and Wendy Lantercontinues to
tour. Blessedly so.
"I initially met the [Tricksters] at the Gathering of the Vibes in
2005," recalls Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay in a recent interview, her
soothing voice intact and peppered with the drawl of her native
Alabama. "I had heard of them, but not heard any of their CDs. I was
asked to be part of the Vibes just to sing with different bands
throughout the weekend, and the Tricksters asked me to come sing a
few with them."
In separate interviews, both Godchaux-Mackay and Tricksters guitarist
Jeff Mattson remembered those first collaborations as not only better
than average but also naturally fitting. Maybe even epiphanous.
"At the beginning, it was, well, we'll do some of your songs and some
of our songs," Mattson remembers. "But it soon became evident that we
had something more than that, and now we're writing songs together,
tooa third dynamic in place. Something very fresh came out of all of
this, especially after we threw in Mookie and Wendy Lanter, too, that
I don't think we ever expected."
"These guys are really good musicians and really good people,"
Godchaux-Mackay emphasizes. "And I've reached a point in my life
where it's got to be better than just good musicians. It's got to be
the ability to spend time with people you really like, grow to love
and have an affinity with."
Following their initial Vibes meeting, Donna Jean and the Zen
Tricksters linked up again at a Rex Foundation benefit in New York,
where the Tricksters were the house band. The two camps had begun CD
exchanges to learn parts and even managed some rehearsal. That gig
led to earnest discussions of joining forces for more than just an
occasional one-off. Originally called Kettle Joe's Psychedelic Swamp
Revue, the band added keyboardist and longtime scene regular Siegel,
and also singer Wendy Lanter, whom Godchaux-Mackay had recommended to
cover high harmony parts.
It's clear both camps–Godchaux-Mackay and the Trickstersshare a
mutual reverence. When asked to talk about their own roles in the new
ensemble, both Donna Jean and Jeff deflected the question to instead
praise the other.
"Even though they started as a Grateful Dead cover band, they took
the philosophy of the Grateful Dead, branched it out, and their own
music came out of what they had gleaned. It's really the best of both
worlds," Donna Jean said.
"I'd always been such a big fan of hers, and now I'm a friend and
coworker," Mattson said. "She has such a gift for those vocal
possibilities. When she hears something or someone comes up with a
melody or lyric, in her head she's hearing all these different
harmonies and background parts. It's real fertile ground for
her. That's something she brings from her Muscle Shoals days, and
it's also a gift."
When it came time to record, the band worked up a healthy slate of
material, cut it to 16 songs to record, and then cut to 12 to make a
single-disc release, going with what made for the most cohesive
album, Mattson says.
"As you know, it's a lot of different styles, but it was almost
metaphysicalwe had a sense of what fit and what would balance
immediately," he explained. "There are some darker lyrics, but more
upbeat, fun stuff too. We wanted to try and get everybody represented
as much as possible."
As if to put to rest any thought of trepidation about covering Dead
material, the band also recently recorded a sprightly version of "Til
the Morning Comes," one of several Dead tunes regularly appearing in
the Donna Jean & the Tricksters repertoire.
"Some of them are even songs the Dead never performed, or rarely
performed, while [Donna Jean] was in the band," Mattson said. "It's
neat having her sing lead on songs like 'Ship of Fools.' We have a
lot to pick from, and you can really cherry pick for the set what's
going to work for a particular night."
The Tricksters foursome itself, Mattson said, is considering another
album down the road, and they still find time for stray
Tricksters-only gigs. In August they played a week of all-Dead shows
in the Northeast to commemorate the birth and death anniversaries of
"But this is what's really getting us excited now," Mattson
admits. "We're just beginning to exploit the possibilities of having
seven singers and all different writers. This is a unique band."
"For lack of a better word, it's a synopsis of what we
do," Godchaux-Mackay said of the album. "For me, it's wonderful.
I've got that Muscle Shoals deep pocket sense of groove but also the
California/Grateful Dead type thing. At this time in my life I'm so
secure in who I am as a person and totally comfortable in my own skin
as a singer and songwriter, so I think there's liberty in my singing
and songwriting. It's kind of weird, being as old as I am [she's 62],
to feel that."
Godchaux-Mackay said she still enjoys meeting Deadheads on the road,
no matter how offbeat or eccentric they can sometimes be.
"They don't so much ask me questions as remind me of certain
gigs," she says with a wry chuckle. "Not that I always remember
much, but they'll come up and say something like 'I was there in
Boston in '77' and they want to let me know they were part of my
life and I was part of theirs. It's the sweetest thing in the world."
How about really offbeat?
"The oddest question I've ever been askedand honestly, it really
bowled me over!was from a young person who didn't seem to know much
about the Dead or whatever. He asked, 'Did you ever meet Jerry?',"
she recalls with a nervous laugh. "I sort of reacted that I was in a
band with him for nine years, and no, it just never happened! But
it's all so humbling to me. I mean, my god, I was just singing and
doing what I do."
Donna Jean said she's proud to have occasional contact and good
relationships with her former bandmatesand that the legacy of the
Dead lives and breathes through the best of its musical scions.
"The Grateful Dead was a timeless and very powerful engine, and that
engine is still roaring today through so many
musicians," Godchaux-Mackay says. "I'd be hard pressed to say who
is carrying that on best, but I think it's a tribute and honor that
so many do. It's a very spirit-filled musical expression. I mean,
people who went to Grateful Dead concerts went with a sense of
adventure in mind. That there are musicians out there who want to be
that wayand listeners who crave that aspect of music that's not by
rotethat's why it persists."
For more info see: http://www.donnajeanandthetricksters.com/
Chad Berndtson is a music columnist for The Patriot Ledger, a staff
writer for PopMatters, and a contributor to Glide, Hidden Track,
Relix and other publications. He lives in New York City; drop him a
line at cberndtson[at]gmail.com.