Donna & the Zen Tricksters
A ‘Kettle’ full of jams
By Michael Lello Weekender Correspondent
Donna Jean Godchaux and the Zen Tricksters have a deep musical bond that made collaboration seem almost inevitable: the Grateful Dead.
Godchaux was a vocalist with the Dead from 1971 to 1979, and the Zen Tricksters are in their third decade of performing Dead and Dead-inspired music.
After playing together at a November benefit for the Dead’s Rex Foundation in New York, Godchaux and the Tricksters decided to take the one-off affair a step further and formed Kettle Joe’s Psychedelic Swamp Revue.
Tricksters guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mattson and Godchaux, working together at her home studio in Alabama to mix the results of that November night for an upcoming CD release, spoke excitedly in a recent phone interview about taking the Kettle Joe’s show on the road. The band will make its debut Friday at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Wilkes-Barre.
"We really got a vibe for one another and one another’s music, inside and outside of our Grateful Dead experience," Godchaux said. "It’s kind of a blending of a few different worlds here that’s really turned out to be a positive thing for all of us."
"We’re gung ho," Mattson added. "We’re really psyched to do it."
In addition to Mattson’s Zen Tricksters bandmates and Godchaux, Kettle Joe’s will include David Nelson Band keyboardist Mookie Siegel, who toured recently with Phil Lesh and Friends, and vocalist Wendy Lanter. Godchaux came of age as a session singer recording with major artists such as Cher and Elvis Presley, singing backup vocals on the King’s "Suspicious Minds" and "In The Ghetto."
In 1971, she and then-husband Keith Godchaux, a pianist, joined the Grateful Dead and they went on to appear on the band’s classic albums “Europe ’72,” “Wake of the Flood,” “From The Mars Hotel,” “Blues For Allah,” “Terrapin Station” and â “Shakedown Street.” Burnt out from touring, the couple left the Bay Area band in 1979. Keith Godchaux died a year later in a car accident.
Dead leader Jerry Garcia died in 1995 after a lengthy battle with drug addiction and other health problems, but remarkably, the jam-band genre the Dead inadvertently fostered has only grown since his passing. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising to Mattson.
"The music of the Grateful Dead was so iconoclastic but was so high-quality," he said. "Back in the early days there was no one doing anything vaguely similar."
Today both younger audience members who missed out on the Dead phenomenon and old-school Deadheads enjoy the music of bands fronted by surviving Dead members, like Bob Weir’s Ratdog and Phil Lesh and Friends, as well as the seemingly countless outfits that pay tribute in some way to the defunct group’s sound and innovation.
Knowing that the music he helped create is still reaching people, Garcia would be tickled.
"I would think that he would be amazed," Godchaux said. "He was never into ’Garcia is God,’ and Garcia is this or that. All he wanted to do was play the music that would hopefully bring people out of the ordinary and take them into the extraordinary, out of the mundane and into the unusual.
"The fact that he did that, and the fruit of that is still available for all to see today, would really, really please him."
WHO: Kettle Joe’s Psychedelic Swamp Revue
WHERE: River St. Jazz Cafe, Plains Township.
WHEN: Friday, March 31 at 10 p.m.