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Jamming Away the Cool: The unapologetic covers and improvisations of The Zen Tricksters 

click to enlarge Whatcha looking at? Did Jerry just drop out of the clouds?
  • Whatcha looking at? Did Jerry just drop out of the clouds?
Whatcha looking at? Did Jerry just drop out of the clouds?In the hip circle of music critics to which I pretend to belong, admitting that you like jam bands is akin to wearing Velcro shoes in public or showing off the collection of G.I. Joes you keep beneath your bed - it isn't going to give you too many cool points. I like indie rock, indie folk, indie power pop, indie hip-hop (indie, while once an abbreviation of "independent," now seems to mean "cool") and a good deal of other genres and styles, but I've held fast to my fascination with the noodles and genre mashing only found in the poorly labeled "jam band" arena.

Jeff Mattson plays guitar and sings in The Zen Tricksters, a New York-based quartet with heavy Grateful Dead influences and affiliations, and he too likes jam bands - probably because he plays in one (two, actually). While Zen Tricksters has been Mattson's band for the past couple of decades, he, along with the rest of his band, also meet up and tour with former Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux McKay to form Donna Jean and the Tricksters.

"If you think of the Grateful Dead as being the quintessential jam band, then I'm happy with being called a jam band," Mattson says, going on to offer up a summation of those who dig the improvisational music of the genre.

"I feel it appeals to a different kind of person. I think those who appreciate jam bands are people who're a little more adventurous," he says.

When playing as both The Zen Tricksters and the Donna Jean collaboration, the band plays a heavy load of covers. So not only are they a jam band, they're also in danger of having a cover band label harpooned to their collective back. Double whammy. Surprisingly, Mattson doesn't get riled up when asked if he considers The Zen Tricksters a cover band. He insists they're not a Grateful Dead cover band or any other sort of cover band, but says there's nothing wrong with playing covers - which at times make up about half of a Zen Tricksters show.

"This whole mandatory play 'your own music' thing is kind of an artificial construct - a great artist like Frank Sinatra never wrote a song in his life. But it's been a double-edged sword for us - we have a great reputation for our ability to play Grateful Dead songs, so that brings people in and then they listen to our other music. But along the way, there's people who just write us off as a Dead cover band, which we never really were in the first place," Mattson says.

But the band does generate its own music - which can be found on their three studio albums of originals - that features rootsy and, of course, jammy numbers spanning a vast range of American musical styles with titles like "Warm Heart" and "Call of the Wind." These originals meld nicely onstage with covers not only by the Dead, but also Bob Dylan, the Band, and others.

It's okay, let your inner uncoolness out. Strap on your figurative Velcro shoes. Pull out that tie-dye or Phish '98 tour T-shirt. Let your jam flag fly.

The Zen Tricksters

8:30 pm doors, 9:30 pm show. Saturday, Feb. 2. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave., 388-1106. $12/advances, $15/door. Tickets available at Ranch Records or Ticketswest (1-800-992-8499).

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