The Zen Tricksters
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"Soundcheck: Live Reviews - compiled by Dean Budnick"

Someone once described the experience of attending a Grateful Dead concert as a mixture between seeing a baseball game and going to church. So it's fitting that The Rex Foundation hosted its New York Black Tie-Dye fall fundraiser at the Society for Ethical Culture, a pew-filled room created to foster a spiritual sense of community. For patrons with deep pockets, the evening's festivities began with a pre-concert meet-and-greet featuring chief preacher Mickey Hart and Dead-family deacons like Donna Jean Godchauz-MacKay, Rob Barraco, David Nelson, Tom Constanten, Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna), Greg Anton (Zero, Heart of Gold Band) and David MacKay (Heart of Gold Band). After a few words from Hart, the evening's activities shifted upstairs where The Zen Tricksters served as the house band for a guest-laden, two-set jamfest. Hart also provided the evening's invocation, adding vocals and cowbell to an all-star version of "Iko Iko," before--rather quickly--slipping into the night. No matter: as the evening unfolded, The Zen Tricksters proved to be the event's true guiding light, weaving a ministry of guests into its set, including the two-keyboardist attack of Constanten and former Trickster Barraco. Highlights from the Dead catalogue included a touching "Ripple," "The Music Never Stopped," and "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," at which point Relix publisher and Rex honcho Steve Bernstein brought perennial concertgoer Dancing Will onstage. During his brief tenure in the Grateful Dead, Constanten's quirky, psychedellic sound remained relatively muted but, on this night, he fashioned himself as a slightly trippier Ray Manzarek (though his vocals on the Doors' "People are Strange" proved to be anything but holy). Since first linking up with The Zen Tricksters at the Gathering of the Vibes in August, Godchaux-MacKay has also meshed well with Jeff Mattson's eerily on-point Garcia interpretations. If the evening proved one thing it's that the church of Garcia is still alive, if indeed split into several denominations. - Relix Magazine February/March 2006


"Still Tricksters at Twenty-five: A Conversation with Jeff Mattson"

The Zen Tricksters are, among other things, the world's best Grateful Dead cover band. Sure, other bands might be more precise or, in Dark Star Orchestra's case, theatrical, but The Zen Tricksters are the truest, most earnest tribute act to travel the Post-Dead circuit. While the group also features original material when it delves into Dead realms, the group potently evokes the passive-aggressive passion of the late, great Jerry Garcia.

Founded in 1979 by guitarist Jeff Mattson, The Zen Tricksters, or the Volunteers as they were known in their formative years, played their first professional gig just east of Manhattan, amongst the suburban sprawl of central Long Island. Balancing classic-rock tracks with equally impressive originals, The Zen Tricksters quickly established themselves as an individual entity, separating the group from a crop of like-minded baby-Dead bands. Yet, as the ultimate act of tribute, the Zen Trickster's originals are often interchangeable with their covers----a testament to Mattson's complex, introspective song writing and the group's flair for carefully aged Haight-Asbury anthems.

Though a working band in the truest sense of the term, The Zen Tricksters have slowly blossomed into a rock and roll dynasty, whose silver anniversary is marked by success, loss, and realized rock-star dreams. The only act to perform at all nine Gathering of the Vibes, The Zen Tricksters are used to playing among bona-fide jam-rock stars. The closest thing the Wetlands had to a house band, The Zen Tricksters slowly worked their way into the Dead's extended family, collaborating with Merl Saunders, The Merry Pranksters, and Buddy Cage, among countless others. In a truly cinematic turn of events, Phil Lesh tapped both Mattson and longtime Tricksters keyboardist Rob Barraco for an early incarnation of his rotating Phil and Friends. Though originally hired for only three-gigs, Barraco proved so popular, he remained a P & F mainstay for four-years, before joining Lesh in the Other Ones and the 2003 edition of The Dead. The popular keyboardist has since gone on to play with a smorgasbord of musicians, including former Black Crowe Chris Robinson. Over the years, dozens of players have come through the Tricksters fold, including Tom "Banjo" Hanway and Jason Crosby, whose keyboard chops were recently heard at the Grammys with Robert Randolph.

Yet, time and time again, the Zen Tricksters have proved to be more than the sum of their parts. For New Yorkers, the group's annual appearances as the South Street Seaport has become a summer tradition, timed to mark Garcia's early August birthday. A national presence, The Zen Tricksters have performed at festivals across, including High Sierra and the Oregon Hemp Festival, also forming a close knit relationship with the Rainbow Foundation Family. While clocking in close to 200 dates a year, the Zen Tricksters have released three well-received studio efforts, The Holy Fool (1996), A Love Surreal (1999), and Shaking off the Weirdness (2002). The third of these, recorded during a drummer-less transitional period, found the electric-rock outfit exploring acoustic textures. Though twenty-four years into their career, this year the Zen Tricksters also won Relix Magazine's inaugural JamOff competition, proof that a new, younger generation has embraced the group's retro-sound. After a few years in flux, the Zen Tricksters have also solidified a permanent lineup, featuring Mattson, bassist Klyph Black, rhythm guitarist Tom Circosta, and drummer Joe Ciarvella. Recently, the Zen Tricksters also celebrated their silver anniversary with a sold-out, guest laden show at Farmingdale, NY's The Downtown. Of the gig Mattson humblely says, "It was the rare night where everything went right."

Below are excerpts from an extensive conversation Jambands.com's Mike Greenhaus conducted with Mattson shortly after the group's 25th anniversary celebration.

MG-The Zen Tricksters retired the record for most performances at jamband Mecca The Wetlands. How did you get your first gig at the club?

JM- Before the Wetlands opened, we were playing a movable Grateful Dead club called Club Dead. This guy was having different Dead-nights at clubs around New York City. After a Grateful Dead gig at Madison Square Garden they were literally bussing fans over to Jamming, a club on 42nd Street. That night, a guy came up to me and said "listen, I'm opening a club in a few months. I'd really like to have you guys play there." And it turned out that it was Larry Bloch and he remained true to his word. Over the years, we played some great shows at Wetlands. It's amazing some of the bands who were playing there at that time: Phish, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews....We played this one gig there as part of the First Church of Phun and the Speed of Light. Real trippy stuff. Our last gig at Wetlands was also real special. It took place a week before the club closed, a week before September 11 - Jambands.com 10/30/05 by Mike Greenhaus


"The Zen Tricksters - An All-American Jam Band"

Since first appearing on the scene as New York's first and most well-
known jam band, The Zen Tricksters have grown to become international touring
and recording artists. October marks the 25th anniversary of the band, and to
kick off what will be a year-long celebration, ZT will perform a show at The
Downtown on October 22.
This celebration of a quarter century of music will find the band revisiting
their past on stage with appearances from several former members. The show will
highlight The Zen Tricksters and their music in its present form while offering
the fans a taste of what they can expect from the band as they begin the next
25 years of their career.
The band that would become The Zen Tricksters began in 1979 as The Volunteers.
Their live set was mostly made up of songs from the Grateful Dead, a band that
has inspired and remains an influence for founding member Jeff Mattson to this day.
"I had gotten the bug about the Grateful Dead about the same time that I
started playing guitar," Mattson recalls. "And, as with so many Deadheads, "I had
this tunnel vision. I was obsessd, so that sort of mirrored my development as a
guitar player. Even the very first band I played in did some Grateful Dead songs."
No matter what the climate of the club scene has been or where the trends in
pop music have gone, The Zen Tricksters have stayed true to themselves and the
jam band style. In the early '80s, Long Island was booming with rock clubs, and
there was an ample supply of good bands to fill the demand for live music. The
lion's share of the bands were cashing in on the new wave boom and covering arena
rock anthems. The Volunteers offered an alternative and created a niche for them-
selves by appealing to the large loyal following of the Dead, as well as lovers
of the jam band experience.
"The Dead have always had their biggest following - even more so than in
California in some ways - in New York," Mattson reasons. "So there were always
people hungry for that."
In 1988, a falling out between band members led to Mattson and a couple of the
Volunteers faithful, who by then were doing a mainly original music set, to
regroup as The Zen Tricksters. Mattson is the last remaining original member from
The Volunteers lineup, and is joined by Klyph Black (bass, vocals, dobro, lap steel),
Tom Circosta (guitar, vocals, piano), and Joe Ciarvella (drums).
The Zen Tricksters relased their first full-length disc, The Holy Fool, in 1996.
The band returned to the studio to release A Love Surreal in 1999. A copy of A Love
Surreal made it into the hands of Phil Lesh, who was moved enough by what he heard
to enlist Mattson and former ZT keyboard player Rob Barraco to be a part of his
Phil & Friends project. Mattson remembers meeting Lesh and getting the Dead bassist's
thoughts on the Tricksters' sound.
"He was really blown away by our ability to jam in the studio," Mattson says.
"He claimed that the Dead were never really adept at that, They couldn't ever get to
that place in the studio, only in a live situation." After a 10-day rehearsal schedule,
Mattson and Barraco joined Lesh and his band for three dates at the Warfield Theater
in San Francisco.
Mattson and the Tricksters play roughly 180 shows a year in North America, and the
group has also brought its jam band show to the stages of Japan. The band has played
on bills with everyone from Derek Trucks to Stanley Jordan, and has shared the stage
with a list of major artists that includes Suzanne Vega, The Jerry Garcia Band and
Jefferson Starship.
Over the band's 25-year history, there have been numberous personnel changes. In
the years leading up to Joe Ciarvella joining the group in the Spring of 2004, the
Tricksters found themselves hard-pressed to find a drummer that fit - so Black,
Circosta and Mattson decided to work as a trio. In 2003, they released Shaking Off
The Weirdness and spent a good part of the year touring as an acoustic act.
"People were very surprised at the fullness of the sound," Tom Circosta remembers.
"It was really something that was unique. We used to have to explain to people that
'this isn't your mother's acoustic show.' This was a jam band that could jam as well
as anybody, even though it was just two acoustic guitars and a bass. And because of that,
we got to play some of the bigger venues."
Operating outside of the system has helped The Zen Tricksters sustain a national fan
base without the backing of a major label. Mattson credits the success to constant touring
and internet downloading sites.
"We sell a lot of our CDs on the Internet, through www.homegrownmusic.net," Mattson
says. That is the 2004 version of indie distribution. Stores are becoming less and less
important. So anybody in the world who wants to buy The Zen Tricksters' music is only two
clicks away."
The band allows fans to record their shows, while making live recor - Good Times Magazine, Issue 898, October 5 - 18, 2004, by Dan Brown


"The Zen Tricksters Celebrate their 25th Anniversary at the Downtown"

Back in 1979, live music was alive and thriving in several rock clubs
around Long Island. Rock fans could go to one of the many bars around the
Island and treat themselves to hearing cover bands or bands with original
material, all before the rise of MTV and "video clubs."
One of the bands around during that era was a group of young men named
The Volunteers who played original tunes mixed with Grateful Dead covers.
Going through several personnel changes, the band had a parting of the ways
in 1989, and four of the members went on to form The Zen Tricksters, who are
preparing to celebrate their 25-year anniversary at the Downtown in Farmingdale
on Friday, October 22.
"It's a long history," says Tricksters lead guitarist and vocalist Jeff
Mattson, with a laugh. Mattson has been a member of the band since the beginning.
"For the first ten years or so, we mostly just played in the New York area,
primarily on Long Island. As we got into the 90's, we started to tour and branch
out. We went through upstate New York and New England, eventually to the South,
the West Coast and ever since then, we've been touring the entire country and
Canada. A few years ago we went to Japan for a tour."
One of the most interesting aspects of The Zen Tricksters is their revolving-
door lineup, as members of the band have joined and left at various times over
the past 25 years.
"People have come and gone over the years, so there's been a pretty large
group of people who have been in the band from one point to another," said
Mattson. "In a way, that's been a really interesting thing. The band's aesthetic
has stayed the same. Our playing music is based on a lot of collective improvi-
sation and we've kept that consistent. But when you bring a new person into the
band, and they have that freedom [to improvise], it's going to influence the sound
of the band," said Mattson. "The sound has changed and evolved over the years.
It can be a set-back, sometimes it's an improvement."
Another factor that The Zen Tricksters have had to deal with over the past 25
years is their reputation as a "Grateful Dead cover band," despite the fact that
the band has played original material from day one.
"It's been a double-edged sword because on one hand you have people coming to
our shows who have never seen us and they come back because of how well [we play]"
said Mattson. "But by the same token, in the music industry, as far as getting a
major record contract or playing certain venues, there's been a certain backlash
where people think we're just a Grateful Dead cover band."
Despite the backlash, Mattson said The Zen Tricksters will definitely continue
to hold on to their Grateful Dead roots.
"We'll always play Dead songs because they're great songs," said Mattson.
"They need to be played."
Mattson and the rest of the current Tricksters are sure to get some help playing
these tunes at The Downtown come October 22. The large number of current and former
Tricksters may be quite an advantage for the band and fans alike. Mattson said he's
looking forward to seeing old friends at The Downtown show and can't wait to go all
out in true Zen Tricksters fashion.
There's no opening acts, so it's going to be us all night," said Mattson. "There's
going to be plenty, plenty, plenty Zen Tricksters music. And we're going to have a
lot of alumni come down, sitting in, playing songs we haven't played in years, seeing
old faces. It's going to be a real celebration of our history." - Long Island Entertainment News, October 2004, by Brian Weinstein


"Shaking Off the Weirdness review by Ray Hogan"

Being best known as the Northeast's premier interpreters of the Grateful Dead's music has been both a blessing and a hindrance for the Long Island-based Zen Tricksters throughout their nearly quarter century of existence.

On the plus side, the legacy has earned them undying support from legions of Deadheads (and made keyboardist Rob Barraco perhaps the luckiest man in jamdom since being asked to become a member of Phil and Friends). Such a reputation, however, has made it difficult for them to grow beyond the Dead association and get their own music out there. I readily admit that the first thing I did when Shaking Off the Weirdness arrived in the mail was to look at the disc's jacket to see if any "familiar" songs were covered. There aren't any, but that doesn't detract from the musical aptitude displayed by guitarists Jeff Mattson and Tom Circosta and bassist Klyph Black (all three sing) on this acoustic offering.

The interplay of the string instruments is heavenly throughout the 10 song disc. From the rollicking folk blues of "The Dean Street Mess Around" to the newgrass virtuosity displayed on the instrumental "Light of Life," which features the first of two strong guest fiddle spots by Jason Crosby, the Tricksters can dot each others I's and cross each other's T's without notice, and certainly aren't restricted by genre.

With that considered, the disc doesn't contain an overwhelming theme or style to ground it, and the willingness to cross such a vast musical terrain in the course of an hour leaves it sounding somewhat disjointed. The best of the tracks stem from the roots-rock tradition: "Waiting for a Sign" has a serene flow to it that becomes hard to resist while the opening "Talk of the Town" (which includes Buddy Cage on pedal steel and Barraco, in one of his many guests spots on piano) contains the kind of blues groove that Eric Clapton wishes he could still find (though it's doubtful he would have ever attempted such time changes).

And that reputation of doing the Dead better than the Dead did themselves in the 1990s occasionally creeps in. When the Tricksters open things up at the end of a couple of tunes ("Talk of the Town" included), it's hard to ignore the influence. "The One," written by Black, strikes too close a resemblance to "Attics of My Life" for anyone to miss.

Shaking Off the Weirdness isn't likely to entice audience members to put aside requests for their favorite Dead numbers in favor of these originals, but it does demonstrate an occasional flair for writing and, as most already know, some tremendous chops.

- Jambands.com


"Reviews compiled by Josh Baron"

For Rex: The Black Tie-Dye Ball

It's one thing for a concert to produce a live album, but it's a whole 'nuther thing for a single show to kick-start an actual band. But one Rex Foundation benefit accomplished just that, rolling The Zen Tricksters, Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay and a number of additional Grateful Dead family members into a new all-star group later dubbed Kettle Joe's Psychedelic Swamp Revue. A year later, the Rex Foundation has released the meat of that performance, which also featured appearances from Dead deities like David Nelson, Tom Constanten, Mike Falzarano, Greg Anton and Rob Barraco, as a two-disc set. Mickey Hart even stops by at the start of the show, adding vocals and, um, cowbell to "Iko Iko" before handing over his reins to Zen Tricksters frontman, Jeff Mattson. While the album includes a number of classic rock chestnuts, including a touching version of the Dead's "Ripple" and Constanten's trippy take on the Doors' "People are Strange," For Rex: The Black Tie-Dye Ball truly finds its feet through enwer songs by Mattson and Barraco, resetting Jerry Garcia's spirit in a decidedly modern context. Mike Greenhaus - Relix Magazine, February/March 2007


Discography

4 Albums, all with tracks that have streaming and radio airplay. All original songs.
The Holy Fool (1996)
A Love Surreal (1999)
Shaking Off the Weirdness (2003)
For Rex: The Black Tie-Dye Ball (2005)

Photos

Bio

The Zen Tricksters can do it all. They are a superbly talented Rock/Jam band who play in both electric and acoustic formats. The Tricksters have a huge working repertoire that ranges from their tuneful and well-crafted original pieces to traditional bluegrass and hillbilly jazz classics, to Grateful Dead, Dylan, Neil Young, and inventive interpretations of any and all songs that catch their fancy. Winners of the Relix Magazine Jam Off, The Zen Tricksters are not only renowned for the trademark jamming ability they have displayed for over two decades, but also for their inspired songwriting. This band will rock you, psychedelicize you, make you cry, and pick it with the best of them!

The Zen Tricksters have three studio CDs of all original material, and a live double CD. Their most recent release, the live double album titled For REX: The Black Tie-Dye Ball (2005), is the first ever Rex Foundation Benefit concert performed in NYC and features the Tricksters in all their live-performance glory with many special guests, including Mikey Hart, Donna Jean Godchaux, David Nelson, Rob Barraco, Tom Constanten, and many more. Shaking Off the Weirdness, (2003), features some newer titles such as High Horse and Sleepwalking, as well as staples of their live shows, Light of Life and The One, and boasts a colorful roster of special guests including former Trickster and current member of The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends, Rob Barraco, Buddy Cage (New Riders of the Purple Sage), and Jason Crosby (former ZT, now with Susan Tedeschi and Oteil & the Peacemakers). The band’s other two CDs are The Holy Fool, recorded in 1996, and A Love Surreal, 1999.

When he heard A Love Surreal, Phil Lesh was so impressed with the band's ability to jam in the studio that he tapped two members to be part of his Phil & Friends collective. In an interview with Kenny T of radio station KGLT in June of 2000, Phil said, "The Tricksters are more than just a cover band. They have their own stuff and they are brilliant, their stuff is brilliant. They are great players!" The Zen Tricksters are the quintessential jamband. Based in New York, they play nearly 150 dates a year while touring throughout the United States and Canada. They have also toured in Nagoya, Yokohama, and Tokyo with Relix Japan and it is generally safe to say that the Tricksters are "currently on tour" somewhere in the United States or elsewhere.

Tricksters music has been used on MTV, WABC’s Alias, and WB’s Felicity. The Zen Tricksters are proud to be a Homegrown Music Net member band and although they play many local New York area gigs, they inevitably wind up back on the road. This is their life and it is what they love. Jeff is very proud of the fact that he has never made his living in any other way but music. “Road life,” he says “very much embodies the yin-yang of life. You trade the long hours of traveling and tedium day after day for the supreme pleasure and sheer love of making your own kind of live music night after night.” That is quite obvious at any Zen Trickster show--you can hear their love of their art in every performance they give. They are currently touring as a four-piece electric band and are proud to be a Homegrown Music Net member band.