Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay may be most familiar to people because of her years with the Grateful Dead. However, that's only one chapter in a musical career that's currently involving the Zen Tricksters.
Formed after a meeting at the 2005 Gathering of the Vibes, Donna Jean and the Tricksters share a Dead background. While Godchaux-MacKay performed with the band for most of the 1970s, the Zen Tricksters started out as a Dead cover band before going out on with their own material.
"They've really developed their own musical style and really developed beautifully as songwriters," Godchaux-MacKay says of her new bandmates. "The chemistry was definitely there, the music was there, the way we related together as people was there -- it just all fit so perfectly, so we decided to make a go of it and see what popped out."
What popped out -- in the form of Donna Jean and the Tricksters -- was based in their Grateful Dead roots and love of music. They'll play from the Dead catalog, go heavy on jamming and showcase what they've created as individual artists and together. For Godchaux-MacKay, the music offers her a chance to show off her two arms -- the arms of her musical upbringing, that is.
One of those arms was from her pre-Dead days. Growing up in the hotbed of Muscle Shoals, Ala., Godchaux-MacKay started her career as a session singer backing up legends such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Elvis Presley. "Everything in Muscle Shoals is very structured and you knew what was going to be played and when," she says. "When I heard the Grateful Dead, I had never heard anything like that before. It was something that was improvisational and experiment-based. That's why I went to California. I wanted some adventure in my life and boy, did I get it!"
She spent nearly 10 years as a singer with the Dead before leaving to start her own band with fellow Dead member and husband Keith Godchaux. "I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in the world to have been able to sing with that band at that time and for that audience. My God, it doesn't get any better than that," she says of her time with the Dead. That says a lot coming from a woman who sang with Elvis for two of his first big hits, "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto."
She eventually formed the Heart of Gold, after what she calls an "amiable departure," which took different forms over the years. Keith died in an auto accident in 1980. She took about 10 years off after marrying David MacKay until the music slowly called her back around 1990.
Most recently, her son, Zion, and brother-in-law, Ryan Godchaux, were performing in the band. When her son left for his own group, Boombox, and Ryan stopped performing due to tinnitus, it just happened to be at the same time as the gig at the '05 Vibes.
Now, she and the Tricksters are together and have recorded their debut album, which will be released early in 2008. Godchaux-MacKay says they simply wanted to make the best album that they could. They're already working on songs for the next one, as well. They'll do some sporadic touring for the next two months and then more consistently after the album is released.
As for the Dead songs they play, some come from the time when she was with the band, but mostly they're songs they all love. She'll also sing the lead on most of them so they don't sound like a Dead cover band. "We started doing 'Playing in the Band' and I'm doing Bobby's part, not my part," she says. "So, we have a lot of fun with the Grateful Dead songs. Our live show is a real good mix of our original material and Grateful Dead songs and songs by other people."
They're also playing songs that the Dead rarely played live, such as "Til the Morning Comes." The fact there are seven singers in the band also adds to their ability to change things up.
Over the years, Godchaux-MacKay feels like she's gotten more confident as a person, which translates to her singing. "I know who I am," she says. "I'm not trying to be anything that I'm not. I'm more natural as a singer than I think I've ever been. That's a great thing."
Donna Jean and the Tricksters play the Visulite Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 on the day of show. For more information, go to visulite.com.