The first recording of the collaboration between Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay and The Zen Tricksters is greater by far than the sum of its parts. Rather than merely an alliance of a former Grateful Dead vocalist and a once and future Grateful Dead cover band, Donna Jean & the Tricksters is a logical extension of the former’s main influences and the band’s natural inclination to improvise.
One of four self-composed tunes, Donna Jean’s “All I Gotta Say” functions as a fine introduction as its sumptuous soul recalls her early days as singer at Muscle Shoals studios. The band skips lightly ahead on “So Hard,” as Mookie Siegel’s electric piano serves as a buoy for the whole group. The Tricksters may not (yet) be truly great improvisers, but they’re never at a loss for ideas and to capture this sense of spontaneity in the studio is no small accomplishment.
Lead guitarist Jeff Mattson is better at playing clean as he does on “No Better Way” rather than using effects. Along those same lines, the restraint in Donna Jean’s singing on that track illustrates how effective the ‘less is more’ precept is when working within a band that loves to jam; the use of the voice as a instrument is best served conservatively and here, in harmony with Wendy Lantner, there’s an obvious chemistry between the two women.
As on display during “Travelin’ Light,” the recorded sound of this CD is deep clear and full and the sequencing serves both the material and the artists well. Siegel’s keyboards highlight the acoustic interlude of “Shelter” and the unusual sound of violin and cello on “He Said She Said” (the former courtesy Jason Crosby of Robert Randolph’s Family Band) is an accurately placed contrast in texture.
Another band original, guitarist/vocalist Tom Circosta’s “Moments Away,” has a bonafide gospel motif that illustrates how the presentation of the material becomes more conventional, though never quite formulaic, as the album progresses. In fact, the fleet bluegrass tempo of “A Prisoner Says His Piece” is unlike anything else on the album, a shining example of the way Donna Jean & the Tricksters first album together will most likely confound a potential listener’s expectations in the most positive way.