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Published: 2008/01/25
by Randy Ray

Donna Jean and the Tricksters – Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay and the Zen Tricksters

Homegrown Records 129

There are a lot of a familiar sounds on this well-crafted, high flying album. One would be hard pressed to delineate differences or want that breath of recognition to fade away. And that’s such a good thing when we’re talking about a band with Grateful Dead family members. The union between former Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay and GD cover band the Zen Tricksters sounds like a match made in Jerry Garcia-honed heaven. Toss in Mookie Siegel, a former member of RatDog and the David Nelson Band, and vocalist Wendy Lanter and one has a solid, tie-dyed rock pedigree built for the endless highway. But could these old tour cats cut a lyrical rug in the studio in a band fronted by an artist with a history that dates back to Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge and the classic 1970s Dead? This snarky question has a refreshingly positive response.

The new album is filled with hook happy tunes, roots and jam, veteran creative chops and Godchaux-MacKay’s rich voice. She has written heavy soul music with a Dead swing on “All I Gotta Say” and “He Said/She Said” with Jeff Mattson, which features a sweet cello from Dave Eggar and a poignant violin solo from Jason Crosby. The Dylanesque “Me and Kettle Joe” is a thirteen-minute masterwork, progressing from a fine lyrical tale into a major jam with a good dose of the sublime kaleidoscopic imagery that were highlights of the Dead.

All seven band members share various vocal duties and the 12 tracks are credited to a handful of tandems including drummer, percussionist and vocalist Dave Diamond. "So Hard” and “Weight of the World” bounce with such a strong sense of rhythm that one envisions some of Mickey Hart’s African collaborations via upstate New York. Lead guitarist Jeff Mattson chimes in with a haunting acoustic ballad, “Shelter” and “Travelin’ Light,” a funk and country throwdown co-written with Mark Mattson that features Jeff Mattson and Godchaux-MacKay dancing between lyrical passages. The middle jam sounds like Garcia sitting in with The Band and floats downstream rather nicely — another long stretch in a focused scenic portrait.

Well, they did it, in a sensemade that heady studio album on which one could hang the proverbial hat. But the road calls and the endless highway does, indeed, roll on forever. It’ll be interesting to hear these engaging tunes in a live set with some material from that “other” band. However, perhaps just as importantly, it is really nice to hear something new, warm and inviting from a band that isn’t afraid to spend a little time outside the daunting Dead shadow.

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