The Jam Center of the Universe in Brooklyn hosts Zen Tricksters January 26, 2020 by Beth Parness

Before there was a Dark Star Orchestra,before there was a JRAD, before there was a Grateful Shred, before there was Further, before there was The Other Ones, there was the Zen Tricksters, the mother of all jam bands, zen and now. Though critical acclaim has met them at every turn, and the devotion of dedicated followers runs deep, commercial success has somehow eluded these veteran performers. The Zen Tricksters, with Jennifer Markard on lead vocals, Jeff Mattson on lead guitar and vocals, Tom Circosta on rhythm guitar and vocals, Klyph Black on bass and vocals, and Dave Diamond on drums and vocals, celebrated their 40th anniversary Monday night at the Brooklyn Bowl and proved they still have the tightness and the glue that enables them to play at the topnotch level that has rightfully earned them their legendary reputation. There were no gimmicks, no fancy costumes, and no firework displays, just a band that is genuinely passionate about reinterpreting the magnificent music of the Grateful Dead and have a rich store of original compositions to offer as well.

Full show audio:

The Tricksters took the stage at 8PM, with a funky, free flowing Bertha. The audience bubbled over with enthusiasm at this Grateful Dead staple, and the band was clearly in control and confident from the first note: they were tuned into each other, and everything out of the gate was just killer. Jeff Mattson is a masterful guitarist, not just for the appeal of his sheer technical prowess, but seemingly endless influences which he weaves into the mix as effortlessly and smoothly as silk. However, he retains a singular originality that sparkles through his solos, not an easy feat considering he is the lead guitarist of two bands that pride themselves on recreating the music of the Grateful Dead.

Tom Circosta’s spot on rhythms never slow down a millisecond; he keeps the momentum going, the energy rising, and never misses a beat or downbeat. As a fan of the Grateful Dead, I especially find it refreshing to hear rhythm that pops like this, having been underwhelmed by the chronic deceleration of tempos by Bob Weir in Dead and Company, grateful as I am for Weir’s amazing talents. Jennifer Markard, the Trickster’s long time powerhouse vocalist, added crystal clear harmonies, interacts with the audience beautifully, and lights up the room.

Dave Diamond is a drum ninja, who uses every part of his drumkit to produce propulsive timbral grooves that tether the proceedings. He can push a simple drum solo into an anthemic conflagration with his imaginative, colorful and energetic drumming, as well as adding crisp vocals on several numbers as well.

Klyph Black plays adventurous, aggressively articulated bass lines with the right kind of bass sound, which is full and heavy. He switches seemlessly betwween weightier Deadsongs and lighter selections that require a softer touch. Born under a Bad Sign showcased Klyph’s ability to take center stage, delivering gut bucket rock and roll balladry illuminated by blues basted blistering runs by Mattson that had some thinking he may or may not have made a certain deal with the devil. Especially notable was the synergistic musical interplay between Jeff and Klyph on a number of selections.

Mother Found a Gun, co-written by Jennifer Markard and Jeff Mattson from The Holy Fool album released in 1998, was a jaunty, uptempo, ironic little melody, played with an energy that kept right on building throughout a set stocked with a gumbo of blues, boogie, reggae, rock, jazz, Dead and more tasty Zen Tricksters original numbers.

The spirit of grass roots Americana followed with a sparkling Cumberland Blues from the celebrated Workingman’s Dead album, with some fingerpicking wizardry by Mattson, and sweet harmonies by Tom Circosta and Jennifer Markard.

More grassroots ensued with a jaunty and sultry Give It Up or Let Me Go with a hip shaking Jennifer Markard on vocals, and Mattson fingerpickin his heart out. Honestly, if Jerry Garcia had ten fingers he would have sounded like Jeff.

Give It Up or Let Me Go, a nugget that featured Jennifer Markard on lead vocals, sourcing multi layered reflections and regrets straight from the heart. At times the Tricksters seemed to be playing as one giant octopus with five hands, as though connected with invisible hands to the same source.

An all out conflagration ensued with Alligator later in the mix, the celebrated Pigpen song, vocals by Klyph, Jeff, Tom and Jennifer segueing into an explosive, super sized drum solo by Dave Diamond, that had glasses rattling on the bar.

The incredibly tight, brilliantly infectious and rhythmically complex, impossible not to dance to, Light of Life, off the Shaking Off the Weirdness Album, released by the Tricksters in 2004, and composed by Klyph Black followed, replete with hairpin turns, off kilter detours, architecturally taut guitar lines, and immaculate ensemble precision playing. A good example of why many fans feel passionately about the Trickster’s original compositions that make this band so unique among Dead “cover” bands. The first set wrapped up with a haunting Down by the River, by Neil Young, with moody vocals by Dave Diamond, backed by Circosta’s colorful, spot on flangy, guitar, Markard and Circosta on backup vocals. Mattson’s solo saturated with sadness and anger followed..a musical onversation with Diamond ensued as Mattson answered Diamond’s vocals with little riffs in response.

After a brief intermission, the band returned to the stage with a rip roaring Hard to Handle, with show stealing vocals by Klyph Black. A celebratory roar engulfed the venue as the audience was up on its feet dancing, forming lines of transportative dancing. There was a big ol’ party going on! This was followed by Zen trickster’s original, Sleepwalking, from the Shaking Off the Weirdness Tricksters album, 2002, featuring Klyph Black on heartfelt lead vocals. A vivid vignette of love lost, with wonderful,wailing,moody, Neil Young-esque backing guitar by Mattson.

If Love Was a train was a standout, with Markard in bloom, confident, authoritative and in full command of her stage presence and her formidable voice.

The requisite Not Fade Away-Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad-Not Fade Away fell completely into the zone, an undeniable sense of community and sonification where the audience and performer’s ability to respond precisely to one another, giving each other cues, creates a fluid stream of music, empathy, and celebration.

The band took the stage like old friends, full of smiles for a well deserved encore of Uncle John’s Band. This band is the blueprint for countless proteges, but this type of longevity is rarely afforded to any band nowadays. These talented musicians’ devotion to beloved songs that speak to multi-generations of Trickster and Dead fans, created a memorable and celebratory evening of music for all to relive for the ages, or at least until the next show.

Photo by Emily K Jackson

Oh Boy!
Born Under a Bad Sign
Mother Found a Gun
Cumberland Blues
Give it up or Let Me Go
No One Said It’d Be Easy
Going, Going, Gone
Drum solo
Light of Life
Down By the River

Hard to Handle
That Chance
Mother and Child Reunion
Beat it on Down the Line
Change Your Mind
If Love Was a Train
Last Ten Years
Not Fade Away
Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad
Not Fade Way(Reprise)

Uncle John’s Band

Drop us a line at [email protected] with your live show review or live music news.