Donna Jean "still Grateful" to be Singing
Big thanks to Jeff Pardo for alerting me to this story. I'm still playing catch-up so this post comes after the 3/23 show it promotes, but it's still a good read.
From The Advocate:
Donna Jean still Grateful to be playing music
By Ray Hogan
Donna Jean is on the stage of the Beacon Theater with Bob Weir singing "One More Saturday Night" on, not surprisingly, a Saturday night.
It's not archival footage of The Grateful Dead in the 1970s. It was two weeks ago with Weir's band, Ratdog.
Donna Jean MacKay (known during her decade with the Dead as Donna Jean Godchaux) is in the midst of her most publicly musically creative period since she and her late husband, Keith Godchaux, left the iconic rock band more than 25 years ago.
MacKay has teamed with The Zen Tricksters (who, in addition to creating their own music, were regarded as among the tristate area's best interpreters of Grateful Dead music for two decades), Mookie Siegel and Wendy Lanter in Donna Jean and the Tricksters - recently changed from Kettle Joe's Psychedelic Swamp Revue.
The band plays The Acoustic Cafe in Bridgeport tomorrow.
MacKay wasn't looking to put a band together when she first played with The Zen Tricksters last year. But she felt a bond during the rehearsal period for that maiden voyage, which was a benefit for The Rex Foundation, the Grateful Dead organization's charitable arm named in memory of roadie Rex Jackson.
"We were starting to kind of hone in on a special feeling that was going on between the Zen Tricksters and myself, both musically and personally. It's so hard to put a band together and here was this band that was already made and was a perfect fit for me."
The group is recording 16 original songs for a future release.
"Everybody in the band is a lead singer. So we have a lot of vocal strength."
With MacKay, The Zen Tricksters (guitarists Jeff Mattson and Tom Circosta, bassist Klyph Black and drummer Dave Diamond) and Siegel (who has played with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir), the ties to extended Grateful Dead family run deep. It isn't a connection the band is running from.
"Garcia and The Grateful Dead introduced improvisational music to all genres outside of jazz. That's why all the jazz musicians love the Grateful Dead. (Before them), everything was pretty much settled as it was going to be played. With the addition of spontaneous improvisational music woven into all of it, the result was the most unique band. They attracted a whole generation of people who were looking for something more in music than they had experienced. I believe this music will continue. The jam-band scene in itself will never go away. There will never be a reason to put music back in a box again."
MacKay was born and now lives in the musical-rich Muscle Shoals area of Alabama. As a singer at Muscle Shoals Sound and Fame studios, she sang on records such as Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto" and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." A move to San Francisco, where she met and married Godchaux, opened her mind to music's possibilities.
"I changed radically as a singer. The improvisational aspect wasn't in my musical repertoire at all. I got out to California and that was radically changed. I saw The Grateful Dead and thought, 'If I ever sing again, it's going to be with that band.' It introduced a spirituality and was revolutionary to me. It was exactly what I had been wanting, but I didn't know it was what had been missing."
With her husband, Keith, Godchaux spent 1972 to 1979 singing with The Grateful Dead, appearing on albums such as "Shakedown Street," "Blues for Allah" and "Terrapin Station." During the same period, she served as a backup singer in the Jerry Garcia Band. The couple left the band in 1979 (whether they quit or fired depends on who you ask). Keith Godchaux died in a car accident the following year.
Aside from bringing improvisation to a melange of American music styles, The Grateful Dead forever influenced MacKay's view of rock lyrics. Using Robert Hunter and John Barlow as primary lyricists, the Dead's songs helped personalize the Deadhead experience.
"Lyrics to the songs were so deep and transient and nondefinitive. Each person could interpret the lyrics for themselves. It didn't rule anybody out. The music was made available to them in such a personal way."
Like the Dead, Donna Jean and The Tricksters bring an ensemble approach to their playing and singing.
"Nobody is looking to be the big deal. We don't treat it that there is a lead singer and background singer."