Shaking Off The Weirdness – The Zen Tricksters
Zebra Tango 27723
Being best known as the Northeast's premier interpreters of the Grateful
Dead's music has been both a blessing and a hindrance for the Long
Island-based Zen Tricksters throughout their nearly quarter century of
On the plus side, the legacy has earned them undying support from legions of
Deadheads (and made keyboardist Rob Barraco perhaps the luckiest man in
jamdom since being asked to become a member of Phil and Friends). Such a
reputation, however, has made it difficult for them to grow beyond the Dead
association and get their own music out there. I readily admit that the
first thing I did when Shaking Off the Weirdness arrived in the mail
was to look at the disc's jacket to see if any "familiar" songs were
covered. There aren't any, but that doesn't detract from the musical
aptitude displayed by guitarists Jeff Mattson and Tom Circosta and bassist
Klyph Black (all three sing) on this acoustic offering.
The interplay of the string instruments is heavenly throughout the 10 song
disc. From the rollicking folk blues of "The Dean Street Mess Around" to the
newgrass virtuosity displayed on the instrumental "Light of Life," which
features the first of two strong guest fiddle spots by Jason Crosby, the
Tricksters can dot each others I's and cross each other's T's without
notice, and certainly aren't restricted by genre.
With that considered, the disc doesn't contain an overwhelming theme or
style to ground it, and the willingness to cross such a vast musical terrain
in the course of an hour leaves it sounding somewhat disjointed. The best of
the tracks stem from the roots-rock tradition: "Waiting for a Sign" has a
serene flow to it that becomes hard to resist while the opening "Talk of the
Town" (which includes Buddy Cage on pedal steel and Barraco, in one of his
many guests spots on piano) contains the kind of blues groove that Eric
Clapton wishes he could still find (though it's doubtful he would have ever
attempted such time changes).
And that reputation of doing the Dead better than the Dead did themselves in
the 1990s occasionally creeps in. When the Tricksters open things up at the
end of a couple of tunes ("Talk of the Town" included), it's hard to ignore
the influence. "The One," written by Black, strikes too close a resemblance
to "Attics of My Life" for anyone to miss.
Shaking Off the Weirdness isn't likely to entice audience members to
put aside requests for their favorite Dead numbers in favor of these
originals, but it does demonstrate an occasional flair for writing and, as
most already know, some tremendous chops.