Donna Jean & The Tricksters: A Dead Match

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 band—which combines Donna Jean, the Zen Tricksters core, Mookie Siegel and Wendy Lanter—continues to tour. Blessedly so.


Connection made


"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, too—a 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 Tricksters—share 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."


Dead setting


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 metaphysical—we 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 Jerry Garcia.


"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."


Comfort zone


"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 asked—and 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 bandmates—and 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 way—and listeners who crave that aspect of music that’s not by rote—that’s why it persists."

For more info see:

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]

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