Zen Tricksters
Brooklyn Bowl  New York
January 8 2017
by Beth Parness

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As one of the of the true originals on the Dead/jam-band scene, the Zen Tricksters have kept the flames of improvisational jamming burning for over 35 years.  Although there have been  various permutations of the Tricksters over the years, and their members play in other notable bands, their annual show at the Brooklyn Bowl is a rare treat and last night was no exception.  The Zen Tricksters, with Jennifer Markard on vocals, Jeff Mattson on lead guitar and vocals, Tom Circosta on  rhythm and lead guitar as well as vocals, Klyph Black on bass and vocals, Dave Diamond on drums and vocals, and  Peter Levin, most recently of the Greg Allman Band, and Blind Boys of Alabama on Keyboards and vocals, performed songs ranging from Dylan , Little Feat,  & The Band and Grateful Dead as well as solid gold original Tricksters nuggets to the delight of their stalwart fans who battled the bitterly cold weather to attend last night’s performance. 

The show kicked off at 8:30 PM  with the appropriate “All kinds of people you might want to know, once you get it, you can’t forget it- W.S. Walcott medicine show” by  The Band featuring Mattson,  Circosta  and Black diving full tilt into The Band’s jaunty vocals, supported by  Black’s Rick Danko-esque contrapuntal bass lines.  Circosta’s bold, informed and funky chord voicings on guitar, fueled Mattson’s paraphrasing of Robbie Robertson’s stinging leads, while adding his own blistering notes of jazzy declamation into the stew.
Down the Road was up next, a  delectable down home, gritty gumbo of simmering take no prisoner,  lead guitar duels between Circosta and Mattson, from their 1999 Love Surreal Album, peppered with hot soulful vocals by Klyph Black, well stirred  by Dave Diamond’s crackling drums, who is equally crisp in free form jams as well as the more straight ahead tunes. This was followed by Cassidy, with vocal mikes initially mixed  too low for Markard and Circosta, but corrected quickly, revealing sweet, pure vocal harmonies by both, which morphed forward from evocative and beautifully discordant tonalities into a tight dance able jam. Circosta’s delicate and ethereal guitar interplay with Mattson’s intricate flamenco-like leads revealed the magical symbiosis they enjoy after years of performing these classics together.
Jennifer Markard took the spotlight on the Zen Tricksters original tune,  I’m Gonna Haunt You, never recorded on any Tricksters CD.  Markard’s poured her entire being into her incendiary vocals on this rarity, with a primal outpouring of openness , yearning, and and integrity, displaying an impressive use of musical phrasing, which was exuberantly received by the audience. Markard’s vocals deliver a pearl like clarity to the band, her lower register is pleasingly smoky and her belt out range is elastic, yet fetchingly gritty.
In My Life, the Beatles classic, was up next, showcasing Dave Diamond singing with subtle understated emotion, in a warm, and open voice, and I would like to hear more.  Peter Levin, who joined the Tricksters for this show,  is an impressive vocalist as well as supremely fluid and versatile keyboardist, trading out galvanic monolithic call and response riffs with Jeff and the band, peppered by colorful, punchy, syncopated earthy boogie woogie rhythms that really swing.

Circosta delivered resonant, sparkling lead vocals in the country fried, All Night Long Blues, which escalated into a thunderous Shakedown Street and the rush of released energy, liminal, joyful, spiritual and ecstatic, totally funked up the dance floor. Circosta’s rhythm guitar work throughout the show but particularly within this Shakedown illustrates the attention he brings to his role in this band and this whole scene. He is unparalleled in his skill and technique.

There were a total of 12 songs,in the very satisfying full first set, highlighting many Zen Trickster originals, as well as time honored Grateful Dead covers and after a brief 30 minute intermission, during which Tom Circosta generously stayed behind on stage, signed autographs and greeted many of his fans, the Tricksters returned to the stage with an instrumental torch-burner of the song, Expressway to Your Heart, by The Soul Survivors. Although I was initially disappointed that this was to be an instrumental, it was at this point that the illusory, interactive universe co-created by the band and its’ fans came into wonderful play. For as the music played,  some of the audience sang, and it was spatial music at it’s best..one couldn’t be sure where the band started and the audience left off.  Phil Lesh would be beaming,  a requisite nod to Stockhausen, for sure.
Klyph Black’s sang soul stirring lead vocals next on Hoodoo, from The Zen Trickster’s The Holy Fool album, and the audience ate it up, reveling in the bad luck of the  lovelorn and the healing power of music that comes from feelin so bad that it’s just so good. A jazzy Talk of the Town, followed from the Shaking Off The Weirdness Trickster’s album, and then the band tore into Samson and Delilah, a  Sunday staple, blow-torching an already pumped up crowd into manic oscillations of rapturous whirling. Twilight,a song  by The Band, and a rousing Hard to Handle, that Pigpen delight, followed.
Then, the Dead’s epic country murder ballad, Jack Straw, with lead vocals of effervescent versatility and propulsive spot- on rhythm guitar by Circosta, sharply punctuated by Diamond’s fluid genre shifting drumming, broadened the musical palette. Light Up or Leave Me Alone, that Traffic classic hit the right nerve as the crowd sang those dismissive lyrics along with the band. Then, Klyph bass- bombed the band into a primordial, epic and fierce, The Other One. catapulting the audience on a thrilling ride.   Mattson’s fluidity on the frets, and jazzy deconstructions, played with  howling abandon spun out fractal brilliances of sound. Mattson seemed loose, and totally in the moment, even dancing at times on stage, clearly reveling in the collaborative alchemy  of this band.
Adding to the matrix of textures being played, Mattson segued into the poignant, and achingly beautiful  Eleanor Rigby, by the Beatles, then back into The Other One. Mattson’s perfect control of his vocal phrasing  next on Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee, told the tale with timeworn ease,  with ensemble vocals by the rest of the band. Reno , next, a song by Klyph Black, was a wonderful straight ahead rocker, belted out by Black, followed by a very sweet Good Night Irene, by  the great Leadbelly. Couples danced arm in arm across the floor, hope rekindled in these dark times, everyone full of blessings and music.
Other highlights of this exceptional show were the numerous call and response jamming interludes between the band and Groovemeister, keyboardist, Peter Levin; Jeff Mattson’s brilliant improvisational digressions into funk, country, jazz, rock,and avant garde territory, refusing to be pigeon holed into a single genre. Then Jeff Mattson took the mike, wished everyone a good night and hoped the Zen tricksters would play again real soon.  So do we Jeff, so do we!

2017-1-8 THE ZEN TRICKSTERS BROOKLYN BOWL Jeff Mattson-guitar & vocal; Klyph Black-bass & vocal; Tom Circosta-guitar & vocal; Dave Diamond-drums & vocal; Jennifer Markard-vocal; Pete Levin-keyboards & vocal

W.S. Walcott Medicine Show > Down the Road
I’m Gonna Haunt You
In My Life
All Night Long Blues
Shakedown Street
That Chance
Skin it Back
Thinking Too Loud
> China Cat Sunflower
> I Know You Rider
Expressway (to Your Heart)
Talk of the Town
> Samson and Delilah
Hard to Handle
Jack Straw
Light Up or Leave Me Alone
> The Other One
> Eleanor Rigby
> The Other One (reprise)
> One More Cup of Coffee
> Reno
Goodnight Irene

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