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Published: 2004/10/30
by Mike Greenhaus

Still Tricksters at Twenty-five: A Conversation with Jeff Mattson

The Zen Tricksters are, among other things, the world’s best Grateful Dead cover band. Sure, other bands might be more precise or, in Dark Star Orchestra’s case, theatrical, but The Zen Tricksters are the truest, most earnest tribute act to travel the Post-Dead circuit. While the group also features original material when it delves into Dead realms, the group potently evokes the passive-aggressive passion of the late, great Jerry Garcia.

Founded in 1979 by guitarist Jeff Mattson, The Zen Tricksters, or the Volunteers as they were known in their formative years, played their first professional gig just east of Manhattan, amongst the suburban sprawl of central Long Island. Balancing classic-rock tracks with equally impressive originals, The Zen Tricksters quickly established themselves as an individual entity, separating the group from a crop of like-minded baby-Dead bands. Yet, as the ultimate act of tribute, the Zen Trickster’s originals are often interchangeable with their covers——a testament to Mattson’s complex, introspective song writing and the group’s flair for carefully aged Haight-Asbury anthems.

Though a working band in the truest sense of the term, The Zen Tricksters have slowly blossomed into a rock and roll dynasty, whose silver anniversary is marked by success, loss, and realized rock-star dreams. The only act to perform at all nine Gathering of the Vibes, The Zen Tricksters are used to playing among bona-fide jam-rock stars. The closest thing the Wetlands had to a house band, The Zen Tricksters slowly worked their way into the Dead’s extended family, collaborating with Merl Saunders, The Merry Pranksters, and Buddy Cage, among countless others. In a truly cinematic turn of events, Phil Lesh tapped both Mattson and longtime Tricksters keyboardist Rob Barraco for an early incarnation of his rotating Phil and Friends. Though originally hired for only three-gigs, Barraco proved so popular, he remained a P & F mainstay for four-years, before joining Lesh in the Other Ones and the 2003 edition of The Dead. The popular keyboardist has since gone on to play with a smorgasbord of musicians, including former Black Crowe Chris Robinson. Over the years, dozens of players have come through the Tricksters fold, including Tom "Banjo" Hanway and Jason Crosby, whose keyboard chops were recently heard at the Grammys with Robert Randolph.

Yet, time and time again, the Zen Tricksters have proved to be more than the sum of their parts. For New Yorkers, the group’s annual appearances as the South Street Seaport has become a summer tradition, timed to mark Garcia’s early August birthday. A national presence, The Zen Tricksters have performed at festivals across, including High Sierra and the Oregon Hemp Festival, also forming a close knit relationship with the Rainbow Foundation Family. While clocking in close to 200 dates a year, the Zen Tricksters have released three well-received studio efforts, The Holy Fool (1996), A Love Surreal (1999), and Shaking off the Weirdness (2002). The third of these, recorded during a drummer-less transitional period, found the electric-rock outfit exploring acoustic textures. Though twenty-four years into their career, this year the Zen Tricksters also won Relix Magazine’s inaugural JamOff competition, proof that a new, younger generation has embraced the group’s retro-sound. After a few years in flux, the Zen Tricksters have also solidified a permanent lineup, featuring Mattson, bassist Klyph Black, rhythm guitarist Tom Circosta, and drummer Joe Ciarvella. Recently, the Zen Tricksters also celebrated their silver anniversary with a sold-out, guest laden show at Farmingdale, NY’s The Downtown. Of the gig Mattson humblely says, "It was the rare night where everything went right."

Below are excerpts from an extensive conversation’s Mike Greenhaus conducted with Mattson shortly after the group’s 25th anniversary celebration.

MG-The Zen Tricksters retired the record for most performances at jamband Mecca The Wetlands. How did you get your first gig at the club?

JM- Before the Wetlands opened, we were playing a movable Grateful Dead club called Club Dead. This guy was having different Dead-nights at clubs around New York City. After a Grateful Dead gig at Madison Square Garden they were literally bussing fans over to Jamming, a club on 42nd Street. That night, a guy came up to me and said "listen, I’m opening a club in a few months. I’d really like to have you guys play there." And it turned out that it was Larry Bloch and he remained true to his word. Over the years, we played some great shows at Wetlands. It’s amazing some of the bands who were playing there at that time: Phish, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews….We played this one gig there as part of the First Church of Phun and the Speed of Light. Real trippy stuff. Our last gig at Wetlands was also real special. It took place a week before the club closed, a week before September 11. Merl Saunders sat in and we did a set of all his material.

MG- Your Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Concert, at times, had the feel of an extended family reunion. How did you structure such a fluid event?

JM- We tried to bring back all alumni of the band. Over the past twenty-five years, a lot of people have come and gone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get everyone back, but we brought back about 15 of them, going back to 1979. Bob Miller and Jim Mueller came—-they’re from the original Volunteers. I’m the only one who has been there the entire 25 years. [laughs] But a lot of people have had long tenures in the group. Like Rob [Barraco], was in the band about eleven years. I contacted all the guests and asked them what they wanted to play and did my best to accommodate them. Some of these people haven’t played a lot of this material since they were in the band. We used to play Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit" all the time when Jennifer Markard was in the band. But we’ve hardly done it in the last seventeen years since she left the band. We also did some of Rob’s songs which we hadn’t done in a while, like "Call of the Wild."

MG- For most of 2002, The Zen Tricksters toured as an acoustic trio. How did this stripped-down lineup influence the Trickster’s current sound.

JM- It’s amazing how tight we became as a trio. You have less sounds to listen to, so you are really able to focus in on everything as a musician. Since we returned to our electric format, some of those acoustic songs have also moved back to the electric set, but we are tighter as players. Earlier in the year we got a new drummer, Joe Ciarvella, and he had the unavoidable task of trying to break into that telepathy. Its amazing how tight we became playing acoustic.

MG- For many New Yorkers, The Zen Tricksters have celebrated Jerry Garcia’s birthday with a free show at the South Street Seaport. How did this one-off gig grow into an annual tradition?

JM- The first South Street show was in 1996, the year after Garcia’s passing. Someone working for the South Street Seaport association was a big Deadhead and they wanted to commemorate Jerry Garcia’s birth. They hired us for that and so many people turned out for it, it’s become an annual event. There have been a couple of times over the years where the people who worked for the association have changed, but they managed to keep us on every year. Over the years, there have also been a couple of crises where a new administration, who don’t know what we were, about came in and our show almost didn’t happen. But, as fate would have it, we always managed to play and draw a crowd so the show does go on.

MG- What’s your favorite, and stickiest, memory playing under the New York summer sun?

JM- Actually this year’s Seaport gig was particularly fun, though it was in September, not on Jerry’s birthday. It was also at night. Usually it’s in the middle of the day and it could be brutal on that dock in August. But this year it was the perfect temperature. It was the first time we had played with the lights on—-just a great show. A few times we also played a late night show after the Seaport at the Wetlands, and later, BB Kings. Everyone would march across town. In 2001, the last year we played the Wetlands the air conditioner stopped working, how little it worked anyway. I think I lost ten pounds of fluids that night it was so hot [laughs]. I was like "God Bless that Audience," because I don’t know If I’d be here right now if it wasn’t for them [laughs]. But they stayed right to the very end.

MG- For many years, The Zen Tricksters’ summer schedule has peaked with a performance at the Gathering of the Vibes. Did this multi-band gathering spring from a Garcia-tribute as well?

JM- We were close friends with John Dwork, who used to publish Dupree’s Diamond News. He is also the head of the First Church of Phun and the Speed of Light —-a real renaissance guy. This was in 1996, the year after Jerry died. We were really feeling the loss—-all the like-minded individuals used to get together at Dead shows and now there really wasn’t that place anymore. We felt like everyone was scattered. His idea was to have this gathering of the tribe, just to bring everyone together. The first one was at SUNY Purchase. It was two days—-it was moe., Max Creek, and us on the mainstage and a side stage with Strangefolk and a few other bands. All of these people got to be together again and dance in the sun. It was a very emotional time for everyone, the band and the crowd. Everyone was feeling the loss.

MG- Ten years later, do you still feel that same emotion when you think of Jerry Garcia?

JM- Oh yeah, of course. Particularly when I see one of those DVDs, Ones from the Vault or something like that. I just recently saw the Festival Express. Ah, there is nothing like seeing Jerry play live. What an amazing talent. I must have seen over 200 shows, starting in September 1973 at Nassau Coliseum

MG- Talk a bit about your first encounter with Rob Barraco.

JM- When we were the Volunteers, he was in a competing Dead-cover band called Timber Wolf. There was a big club out on Long Island called Hammerheads. Someone had the idea that it would be great to bring both bands together and have a battle of the Dead cover bands. Those guys were actually playing there already—- it was the biggest room on Long Island. We were like, "this is our chance to get in there!" Timber Wolf was more refined in certain ways then us, but we had more energy. We kicked more ass [laughs]. We were like, "What do we have to lose?" Before this gig went down, Timber Wolf sent Rob to see us play at this place called Fast Times. He came down to the dressing room and said to us, "This isn’t a good thing, we shouldn’t do this. The two bands shouldn’t compete. That’s not in the spirit of the music." We were like, "Uh ok, but we want to do the gig anyway. We want to play that club." So he sat in with us and then left and, on his way out, he realized that he left his gloves downstairs in the dressing room. So, as he is coming downstairs into the dressing room, he hears me of all people say, "We are going to crush those guys." They actually pulled out of doing the show and a few of those guys ended up coming down and sitting in with us, so it was all good We were macho Deadheads [laughs].

MG- And, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them?

JM- Years and years later, Timber Wolf had broken up. Rob was doing all types of things: the music for The Cosby Show and touring with Freddie Jackson, the R&B player. But he got to a point where we was done with that and just doing day sessions. One time in 1989 our keyboardist couldn’t make a Halloween show at the Wetlands. I said, "What the hell. You should play with us." He had such a good time, he was like "I’ll take this gig." He ended up playing with us for eleven years.

MG- What did you take from your time playing with Phil and Friends?

JM- It just struck me how he turned every song into a jam-song. The music didn’t stop, he just kept segueing between songseven during the first set. We did songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man," but they were like 20-minutes long. They reached the limits of your imagination of what you could do with any material. He was always looking for a new way to change things up a little and make it fresh.

MG- When did you realize Rob’s departure was inevitable?

JM- Well, he obviously turned in Phil’s favorite keyboard player and kept getting called to do these gigs. We went through some tough times there—-but we had to keep playing. We took Barry Sless from the David Nelson Band out with us playing guitar and pedal steal. Barry is a phenomenal player, but it didn’t have that vibe of the four of us, who were so locked in and out there every night. It got to be tough. Then, when Phil wanted him to do it permanently, it just became obvious. He came to me and said, " I guess I have to leave the band and I said, "Yeah." But who would blame him? If it was me, I would have done the same thing.

MG- What are your thoughts on the new Dead?

JM- I saw them a few times with Rob last summer. This year we were west when they were east and vice versa. I enjoyed that lineup….I mean, it just can’t compare it to the Grateful Dead. The best way to enjoy it is to say there are still some of those guys around and they still play some really great songs. But it is a different band, though there are some great elements. But I really enjoyed some of the shows they did. I especially really enjoyed how they reached back and played everything from the repertoire.

MG- How would you like fans to remember the Zen Tricksters’ first twenty-five years?

JM- Good music played well. When it comes down to it, what counts is if the music is taking off.

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