dead man’s tales

Tom Constanten

You can’t ignore the connection. It’s the weekend before Halloween, and who do we have playing in town? Why, an alumnus of the Grateful Dead. Talk about timing.

But more than seasonal coincidence is bringing Tom Constanten to Willie’s Locally Known tonight for a performance with the Dead tribute band Terrapin Flyer. The keyboardist has become a semi-regular in the region of late, although he hasn’t always played in the most conventional of concert settings.

Constanten has become a part of a performance program with Versailles photographer Don Aters called The Grateful Experience, which mingles music, conversation and the latter’s portraits of seminal West Coast counterculture heroes from the 1960s. In fact, the two turned up at The Woodford Inn in Versailles earlier this month for such a presentation along with fellow keyboardist Bob Bralove (an auxiliary member of the Dead in the late ‘80s and Constanten’s partner in the keyboard duo Dos Hermanos) and former Dead manager Rock Scully.

Tonight, however, the Dead lives with Constanten performing with the Chicago-rooted Terrapin Flyer.

“Every night we go back to the well and we find interesting things,” said Constanten, 68, by phone last week. “But it’s also an ongoing process. I’m been touring with them since 2006. I started filling in for Vince Welnick (the late Dead keyboardist who was a frequent Terrapin Flyer contributor) and they kept calling back. So something must be working.”

Constanten’s time with the Dead was fairly brief – from 1968 to early 1970. But that was a period when the Dead solidified itself as a premier band in a very active San Francisco psychedelic music scene. He appeared on three pivotal Dead recordings – Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa and Live Dead. His playing is also prevalent on several fine archival concert recordings of the band’s music released in recent years. Among the best is Fillmore West 1969, which resourced the same performances that made up Live Dead.

“It’s a miracle,” said Constanten of the continued popularity of the Dead’s music. “Like I said in my book (the 1992 memoir Between Rock and Hard Places: A Musical Audiobiodyssey), I don’t believe in miracles, I rely on them.”

That odyssey is hardly limited to the Dead’s legacy. He has collaborated with modernists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, studied with avant-garde pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhauden and Pierre Boulez and released recordings that have run from an entire album of variations on the Jorma Kaukonen instrumental Embryonic Journey (with Kaukonen himself him as a duet partner) to a collection of solo piano performances that cover everything from Brahms to Bill Evans (2006’s Deep Expressions, Longtime Known).

“One of the attributes of the 1960s cultural revolution was that we broke down barriers – not just between different types of music but between entire genres. Frank Zappa interacted with Boulez, too. There was a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Alice Cooper. We were awash in possibilities.”

While the future may keep Constanten a regular in Central Kentucky, the keyboardist is streamlining his work schedule somewhat after suffering a heart attack over the summer.

“My world changed when that happened on July 28. I’ve been taken care of pretty well, but there are a lot of other things I now consider frivolous that I’m no longer doing. I’m concentrating on the tours with Terrapin Flyer, the Jefferson Starship (Paul Kantner’s ongoing outgrowth of Jefferson Airplane, to which Constanten also contributes) and Dos Hermanos.

“It’s pretty much like taking all of your things off the shelves and dusting them off once something like this happens. Everything is new and exciting again.”

Tom Constanten and Terrapin Flyer performs at 9 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 North Broadway. Cover charge is $10. Call (859) 281-1116.

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