Past is very much present for Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten

PITTSFIELD — Grateful Dead keyboardists made half of the band's name feel a bit more literal than intended during the immortal psychedelic rock group's reign. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (age 27), Keith Godchaux (32), Brent Mydland (37) and Vince Welnick (55) all died shortly after or during stints on the keys for the Dead. But pianist Tom Constanten, who joined the group in 1968 before departing in 1970, has avoided that fate — narrowly. According to multiple news media reports, Constanten suffered a heart attack in 2012, and last year, he broke his neck after a face-first fall. Given the historical precedent, Constanten's circumstances could bend most people's brains as much as the drugs used at Dead concerts during the group's heyday. The 73-year-old, however, won't let his mind or his music succumb.

"I've lost a step or two, but considering that I'm touring with rock bands at my age, I'm not complaining," Constanten told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

On Friday night, Constanten will appear at The Colonial Theatre with the rest of The Airplane Family & Friends with Live Dead & Riders '69, a tribute group to the hallucinatory sounds emanating from San Francisco during the 1960s. The band consists of Mark "Slick" Aguilar (Jefferson Starship guitarist); Mark Karan (RatDog and The Other Ones guitarist); Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna and New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist), Robin Sylvester (RatDog bassist); Johnny Markowski (New Riders of the Purple Sage drummer); and Constanten. Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead directly or indirectly influenced all of the group's members, but the band will play music primarily from Constanten's time with the Dead, according to the keyboardist.

"They're being indulgent to me mainly because I don't have to learn a lot of new material that way. There are Grateful Dead songs from after my time that I wouldn't recognize if I heard them, so we won't be doing those," Constanten said.

Though the group recently formed, the members are in sync.

"We've done around, oh, I would say four dozen shows, and we're starting to get comfortable with each other," Constanten said. "All of us have known each other forever anyway and have played the material for decades, so we are in the zone and unconscious or whatever you want to call it."

That familiarity borders on fraternity.

"Going back to the 1960s when the bands were forming, all of these were voluntary associations, and there was a natural attraction of like-minded individuals who approached music the same way," Constanten said. "And there was a lot of stuff that we just didn't need to explain to each other. It was already there. We were on the same page."

What was some of that stuff?

"I don't mean to be dodging your question. I don't know, maybe I do. But a lot of the stuff is sub-verbal. Things that you agree on at the subliminal level having jammed the music for month after month, year after year," he said.

Pushing Constanten's thoughts towards the tangible is often a futile exercise. But when he's discussing why he left the Dead in 1970, which was two years after he joined the band, he doesn't equivocate.

"It was entirely for technological reasons," said Constanten, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the rest of the Dead in 1994. "The technology of 50 years ago could not amplify a keyboard to compete with the mounting amplification of the guitars, which was definitely pushing the envelope."

Constanten contributed to a few of the group's albums, including "Anthem of the Sun" and "Aoxomoxoa," adding his classically trained repertoire to a sound that blended folk, bluegrass and several other musical genres.

Since he parted ways with the Dead, Constanten has worked on solo and group projects. He also wrote a book, "Between Rock and Hard Places: A Musical Autobiodyssey." But his musical career is inextricably linked to the group he belonged to nearly five decades ago.

"There are definitely worse things to be associated with," he said.

The Dead were known as much for their live performances as their music itself. A prodigious touring schedule and devoted followers means Deadheads are nearly everywhere today, an ubiquity Constanten continues to capitalize on. He says he's "out of town" about 20 percent of the year now and appreciates that his new band can still improvise and discover like Jerry Garcia and company did long ago. He feels the current music environment is more structured.

"Fortunately, we're out of the line of fire of that, so we get to do [it] like we did back in the old days," Constanten said.

And so psychedelic '60s rock will live to see another night.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions