A curious mix of middle-aged guys in tie-dyed t-shirts and pretty young women were at The Downtown on Friday night, a Long Island sports bar that frequently presents live music. We enter as the warm-up act is taking the stage. Rainbow Trout — not to be confused with Lake Trout or Leftover Salmon or any other bands with fishy names — is tuning up. Their salient feature is Dave Diamond, who tonight stakes a claim as the Hardest-Working Man in Show Biz. He’s going to play for an hour or so with the warm-up act, and then turn in a very full and rich pair of sets with the headliners, the Zen Tricksters. And he’s a drummer! He’s going to crash and thump, all four limbs at the max, from 11 PM till nearly 4AM, with scarcely a break. What’s more, he’s a singer/songwriter. Some kinda wonderful.
Those of us with reality-based lives are getting plenty restless by the time the Zen Tricksters take the stage. Presumably, this custom derives from an evil plot by the bar’s proprietors to keep everyone drinking for as long as possible. I wish I had the glamorous sort of life that doesn’t really get started till twilight, but I’m up and doing at daybreak, like pretty much the rest of the world. Venturing out to see a band that doesn’t start till ‘round about midnight is rather a leap of faith.
And that’s exactly the spirit in which the Zen Tricksters begin the show on this Good Friday. The opening number, "Sacrifice," is an original composition by the afore-mentioned Dave Diamond. Its old-timey, tent-show revival ambience makes you feel like you’ve known this song forever. Maybe if you happen to have worshipped at The Church of What’s Happening Now, you’re acquainted with its sentiment. Even if you haven’t, if you have a living soul within you, you can feel the call. The effect on the previously bored, drink-talk-smoke crowd is magnetizing, and there’s a sudden shift from the bar to the direction of the dance floor.
"Mississippi Half-Step," a Grateful Dead standard, pretty much draws in anyone who’s borderline. This band plays a lot of Dead songs. Like all artists, they turn to the music that most inspires them; and like inspired artists, they take it further. Just as the Dead referenced the songs they loved, from blues and country to reggae and pop, these guys combine their original material with renditions of the songs you’ve known and sung along with all your life.
The lead guitarist is Very Jerry. This is a good thing, right? We all like to be evaluated as unique individuals, of course, but this guy’s standing in a colossal shadow. In addition to his physical resemblance to St. Jerome, Jeff Mattson plays in a similar straight-from-the-Id style, peeling off a breathtaking variety of licks that range from melting to downright blistering. Heavens preserve me from sacrilege, but I’d say he’s a better singer than his patron saint. Tonight’s show features his rendition of the folk classic "Peggy-O," and it’s a pretty fine example of how everything old is new again.
The first set’s blend of traditional and original music peaks with a highly psychedelic version of the relatively obscure "Alligator" and concludes with the ironic "Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad," leaving the crowd with a satisfying case of the Happy Blues. These cheerful folks are as affable a lot as you’ll encounter anywhere. I find myself befriended by an exuberant young blonde who not only pronounces me “so cuuute” (believe me, I’m not) but also declares that I “smell nice”. As on-the-spot evaluations from total strangers go, can you do much better than cute and sweet-smelling?
Second set opens with a lively rendition of "Hey Pocky Way," sung by bassist Klyph Black, who will ultimately close the set with "Hard to Handle." The latter offers a perfect example of the his manner of singing. Just about anyone can belt out “BAY-BAY, here I am,” but who really means it? He does, without the slightest doubt, and he delivers all of his vocals with an utterly thrilling conviction. This band has a remarkable vocal strength; in addition to the fine voices of its drummer, bassist and lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist Tom Circosta sings in an amazingly expressive range, from a captivating tone of sweetness-and-light to a soul-wrenching depth. In a less-gifted band, he’d do all of the singing, and he’d do it very well indeed.
As in the first set, the repertoire encompasses both new material and covers, including a hypnotic jam segue between the original “Warm Heart” and the classic "Unbroken Chain." Guest keyboardist Pete Levin provides sparkling accompaniment throughout, with spirited periodic contributions from the Miso Honei Horns. There’s no backstage at The Downtown, so the band has nowhere to hide before launching into their encore, a rollicking “Let’s Spend the Night Together” that sends everyone home with a grin—and maybe an echoing refrain of BA-BA-DUH-DA, BA-BA-BA-DUH-DA. All in all, it’s a night well spent.