This band is not playing at your church this sunday. Honest. You can try to avoid the Grateful Dead. You can attempt to bury your tie-dyes and ticket stubs in the closet and scrape those dancing bears off the back of your Volkswagen. But you can never quite get away from the influence of the Dead, even 40 plus years since the band's inception and almost 15 since its end. There's a slew of factors contributing to the lasting power of the band's influence, but none as impacting as the fact that most of the band is not only still alive, but still playing music - and not just music, Grateful Dead music.
This is why a band like Donna Jean and the Tricksters, although new to the scene, will find success. The band also put out a remarkably fresh-sounding self-titled record - that helps.
As the more adept Dead-o-philes, probably already deduced by now. This band is made up primarily of the Dead's longtime vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux and the Zen Tricksters - a New York-based jam band that's been around since before anyone referred to such acts as "jam bands."
Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay, as she's now known, speaks in a soothing Southern accent gained from her upbringing of the music-rich town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama (yes, the same town referenced by Lynyrd Skynyrd.) When I catch her on her cell phone, she's driving to the studio about to lay down more tracks with Tricksters in the wake of the fledgling band's well-received self-titled debut disk.
"The way I look at it and the way other people seem to look at it is: 'Man, these guys can play anything,'" Godchaux MacKay says of the Zen Tricksters, with whom she recorded the last album at a breakneck speed of 16 tracks over just six days. The italics on anything and subsequent italics are totally and completely necessary - Donna Jean has the way of emphasizing certain words when she really means something. It's delightful.
Before she found herself in the Grateful Dead (after she and then husband, Keith Godchaux more or less asked Jerry Garcia if they could join up) Godchaux MacKay was a sought-after studio signer working in Muscle Shoals and singing on records by Aretha Franklin and Elvis, among others. Godchaux Mackay says, and correctly so, that her Muscle Shoals R&B-laced background is present in the band's record - which, coming from a woman who spent nearly a decade in the Dead and a band known for its Dead covers, really doesn't sound like a Grateful Dead knock off. That's refreshing and probably why people like Fricke don't mind recognizing its quality.
While Donna Jean and the Tricksters is her main focus these days, the 62-year-old doesn't mind talking about her days playing with the band (pun totally intended).
"It turned my head around, it turned my life around, it turned around the way I think about music. I think about those years with such incredible fondness. That was a very special decade," Godchaux Mackay says.
She seems completely aware of the influence the band she spent the 1970s with had on American culture, yet at the same time doesn't play down her excitement in recalling the experiences with the Dead.
"Imagine walking into a Grateful Dead rehearsal and hearing "Scarlet Begonias" for the first time. It was amazing," she says.
Not wanting to disappoint old school Dead Heads, or the second and third generation music lovers that have come to know the music of the Grateful Dead, The Tricksters, as Godchaux Mackay puts it, play "a good mix" of originals and Dead covers when on stage. It's hard to blame her for playing Dead tunes. Fans pretty much expect any former member of the Dead to be on the road playing Dead tunes (Phil Lesh and Friends, Bob Weir and Ratdog, Mickey Hart's projects). It's a culture that's hard to let die, Godchaux Mackay says.
"Forty years later you have people that have been so influenced by the Grateful Dead's music that they learned the whole philosophy behind it and really took it to heart," she says.
Donna Jean and the Tricksters
8:30pm doors, 9:30pm show. Thursday, May 27. The Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $13/advanced, $15/door. Tickets available at Ranch Records and ticketswest.com.