Catching Up With Donna Jean: For the former Grateful Dead vocalist and longtime Rex supporter, her connection with the Zen Tricksters is a match made in heaven.
By Casey Lowdermilk
“In this day and age everything is so uncertain, and people are looking for something that’s a little more certain, something that they can relate to and have a little bit of faith in. I think the Rex Foundation provides that for people – that base of faith.”
– Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay
At a Rex Foundation Black Tie Dye Ball in the fall of 2005, the pervasive spirit of community, generosity and musical creativity helped to spark a special bond between the Zen Tricksters (the house band for the evening) and Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay, former vocalist for the Grateful Dead.
Donna Jean’s musical connection with the Zen Tricksters goes beyond their obvious Grateful Dead history and influence. The exceptionally talented Zen Tricksters also can play that distinctive Muscle Shoals groove that formed much of Donna Jean’s musical upbringing. Shortly after the benefit, they teamed up to forge a new musical direction with the band Donna Jean & the Tricksters, which the Grateful Dead alumna calls a “perfect fit.”
With Donna Jean, this new band will have the powerful voice and strong stage presence we’ve all come to know and love. Her years with the Grateful Dead are remembered as some of the best; somehow the captivating aura of this talented female vocalist onstage with the good ol’ boys shot them into yet another musical stratosphere. Before the Dead, Donna Jean learned from the best at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, singing backup vocals for Elvis Presley and working with such industry icons as Ahmet Ertegun and Tommy Dowd.
Rounding out Donna Jean & The Tricksters are musicians quite familiar to the larger Grateful Dead family. Jeff Mattson and Tom Circosta team up on guitar, with Mookie Siegel on keyboards and Wendy Lanter on vocals. Klyph Black on bass and Dave Diamond on drums keep the rhythm steady. Their debut album is due out January 29, 2008.
Firmly rooted in the Rex Foundation, Donna Jean & The Tricksters are champions of the Grateful Dead legacy’s charitable arm, expanding and fostering the kind and generous community of music fans. Donna Jean and Mookie Siegel contributed their efforts to another Black Tie Dye Ball in September 2007 at Falls Church, Virginia.
The Rex Foundation found the ever-gracious Donna Jean during a rare break from her busy tour schedule, when we took the opportunity to discuss her excitement over this new band and her enthusiastic dedication to the Rex Foundation.
Rex Foundation: How are you doing, Donna Jean?
Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay: I’m doing well, and we’re having a great time on the road. We’re getting to play enough gigs now to where we’re starting to sound like a band, instead of just a few musicians who came together for a few gigs. We’re very happy about the way things are going.
Rex: You’re in the toddler stage of the band; that must be pretty fun.
Donna Jean: Yeah, on one hand it’s really fun, because it’s exciting getting to learn new material; on the other hand, you’re having to start from a scratch level, in a way. But it’s all good, in that the more we play together the better we get as a band, and you can’t beat that with a stick.
Rex: How did this band come together?
Donna Jean: I had heard of the Zen Tricksters for several years, but I had never heard the band, heard any of their records, heard them live, or anything.
I met them for the first time at the Gathering of the Vibes in 2005. They were playing there and asked me to sit in with them, and I sang a couple of songs with them. When we were hanging out backstage I just felt an affinity with them personally. As well, I just thought, these are really good musicians.
Later on in the year, the Rex Foundation was doing this benefit in New York City and the Zen Tricksters were the house band for the benefit. Of course that included myself, and David Nelson; Mickey Hart was there for a little while, and TC. In the two days of rehearsal with those guys, I got a real opportunity to see how they work and get an idea of who they were musically.
Of course, Jeff Mattson, the lead guitar player – he and I exchanged CDs for the benefit. I sent him songs of mine; he sent me songs of the Zen Tricksters. I got a chance to really see that they weren’t just a Grateful Dead cover band; these guys had like three or four records out of their own material. They had moved on. I got to see, firsthand, at that point, that they were good songwriters as well, and had developed their own style and their own musical expression.
That really attracted me to the band. When they learned my songs, I thought, “Wow, they can really play my stuff too!” I was very impressed, and we had such a good time together, both musically and personally. We began talking, at that time, about collaborating and seeing where that would lead.
As we progressed to do that, up popped Donna Jean & the Tricksters. It really works well for them and me – they are really a perfect fit for me.
Rex: How did you approach this new album together?
Donna Jean: It’s an album of all new material. Jeff Mattson and I wrote a few songs together, as well as their new material and my new material; there is starting to be a collaboration.
But here’s the cool thing. Before I got into the Grateful Dead, I was raised in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama music scene, and Memphis and all of that. I had done session work for years and years before I got into the Grateful Dead, and of course a lot of that was very R&B based.
My musical upbringing initially was that real backbeat, swampy, laid-back Muscle Shoals groove. Which is what I consider one arm of my musical experience, and love. When I got to California and started listening to the Grateful Dead music, it absolutely blew my little pea-brain. I was used to everything being very pristine and orchestrated and arranged; I mean I was working with Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun and Tommy Dowd. They would all come down to Muscle Shoals, and a large part of my musical upbringing was spent with those guys.
When I got to California, the Grateful Dead was the entire opposite of that, which just happened to be what I was looking for. I was looking for a new adventure in my life, both personally and musically. I was searching for something new and something different and another adventure in my life, and boy did I get it with the Grateful Dead.
I heard that band and I don’t think I closed my mouth for quite a long time. I was just absolutely blown away by the spontaneity, the creativity, and the whatever-is-happening-is-happening, and where no song is the same from night to night. I was completely captured by that and I thought to myself, and said it to a few of my friends, “Gosh, if I sing again, I’m gonna sing with that band.” Which also added the other arm of who I am musically. I spent almost nine years in that band, so I am steeped in Grateful Dead.
So what is cool about this band is that they play both. Obviously they were very influenced by the Grateful Dead and have that improvisational thing going, but as well they can take a Muscle Shoals groove and just play the crap out of it. Oh yeah, they can do it. So our live show, and what is representative on the album, is a combination of those two arms of where I am musically. And because they are music addicts, they listen to everything, so they can play it. So I get the best of both worlds with this band, and I just love it. It is the perfect fit.
Rex: I saw that there are seven vocalists in the band – are you the primary singer?
Donna Jean: (Laughs) I would say I’m the most primary one. Jeff Mattson does a lot of lead singing, Tommy does, Mookie, Wendy, everybody does really. Dave Diamond, Klyph Black – they’re lead singers as well. Our live show will have kind of a combination of us lead singers, but I carry a good portion of the lead singing weight in the band.
Rex: You also participated in a recent Rex Foundation benefit in Falls Church, Virginia. How was that?
Donna Jean: That went really well. All of us are very good friends – the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Boris Garcia and us. It’s just old home week when we get together to do something like that; everyone’s in one accord and is of one mind. We’re there for the same reason and we’re all really good friends.
When we can get together to do something to benefit a foundation like Rex, it’s all the more valuable and precious to us. We enjoy doing it.
I have said on so many occasions that the integrity and the philosophy behind the Rex Foundation seems almost like a prototype for a nouveau way for being an entrepreneurial foundation – knowing that every dollar you give is going to the right place and to the right people. There’s no excess spent on extraneous stuff that doesn’t get to the beneficiaries, and that’s why I’m an avid raise-my-flag-to-the-Rex-Foundation supporter; I know that’s the truth. I will go to any extent to help the Rex Foundation in any way I can. The integrity of it – you don’t find it too often.
Rex: While you were still with the Grateful Dead, were there any rumblings of this sort of a charitable arm?
Donna Jean: While I was still with the Grateful Dead, not in my remembrance. In this kind of regard, it passed me by. It really started taking off much more in the ’80s. Especially in the past few years, it seems like it’s really revved up a lot, as far as the musicians’ sponsorship and energies being devoted to the Rex. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of several Rex benefits.
Rex: Is the spirit of community and charitable outreach still as much alive today as it was with Deadheads in the ’70s?
Donna Jean: Well, times have changed, as we well know. I think, in this day and age everything is so uncertain, and people are looking for something that’s a little more certain, something that they can relate to and have a little bit of faith in. I think the Rex Foundation provides that for people – that base of faith.
It’s not to be found at the drop of a hat. In this day and age, trustworthiness is hard to come by. I think people that are looking for something to trust in can find it, and I think there’s provision for trust today. I know the Rex is a part of that and can provide that to people who want to give. Sometimes people don’t know where the money’s going anymore and they don’t know if they will make any kind of impact; because of the lack of trust, people will draw back from it. This is one foundation that I know for sure, people can rely on it that every dollar they give will be spent in the right way.
Rex: Is it any surprise to you that most members of the Grateful Dead family are still as musically active and vibrant as they were in ’95?
Donna Jean: I’m not surprised at all. I would be surprised if that were not the case, because these guys were and will be all about music for all of their life. I would be surprised otherwise. They’re fabulous musicians; they’re seasoned; they’ve been through a lot; they know the score. They have retained respectability and longevity in their musicality, and I expect it to go on for a long time from now.
Rex: Definitely, as well as the Rex Foundation continuing that legacy.
Donna Jean: Yeah, we’re all about music and trying to do what’s right and doing what we can to make this planet a better place. You may look at it in one way and say, “I’m nothing, what can one person do?” But one person, times many more in a positive community, can make a difference.
We’re just ready to continue to make the best music we can and be forward thinking to help make this a good spot on the planet. (Chuckles) We want to be a good spot on the planet.