Walter Tunis: Former Grateful Dead keyboardist returns to region

Contributing Music WriterOctober 25, 2012 

  • THE WEEK THAT WAS

    Drive-By Truckers at Buster's Billiards & Backroom: Leave it to Patterson Hood to take notice of one of rock music's darkest and perhaps least commemorated anniversaries as last weekend's Drive-By Truckers show roared into gear.

    The evening marked 35 years since the Mississippi plane crash that claimed the lives of several members of the landmark Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Truckers have never been Skynyrd clones or even Southern rockers in any familiar sense, as this tireless 2¼-hour performance proved.

    Without a new album to promote, Hood and co-frontman Mike Cooley dug into the band's catalogue and pulled songs from each of its nine studio albums. The tunes were fortified by hearty twang that sounded more Western than Southern (Sink Hole), Neil Young-style grunge (Heathens) and a redemptive roots hybrid that balanced old-school country with Muscle Shoals soul (Mercy Buckets). But the album that formed the show's narrative arc was the 2002 opus Southern Rock Opera. Hood and Cooley ripped through nine of its tunes. But it was Hood's pairing of the spoken word recitation The Three Great Alabama Icons, performed with slight updates, and the confessional The Southern Thing that placed the Skynyrd anniversary in proper perspective. The works underscored Hood's long-held notion of Southern "duality" — pride in the South's culture and embarrassment at its politics ("proud of the glory, stare down at the shame").

    The near-capacity crowd took it all in, too — often singing along to such less-than-obvious Southern Rock Opera songs as Guitar Man Upstairs and Dead, Drunk and Naked. The album's thematic and stylistic depth was enforced by a four-song selection that served as a hearty encore: Cooley's dark religious romance saga Zip City, Hood's celebratory Let There Be Rock, Cooley's Chuck Berry-meets-Georgia Satellites death march Shut Up and Get on the Plane (with the priceless lyric, "Your visions and your feelings, your bad dreams and intuitions are about as much use to me right now as a brand new set of golf clubs") and Hood's country lament Angels and Fuselage.

    If the Skynyrd crash weighed on the band's mind, the resulting performance served as one mighty wake.

Tom Constanten and Terrapin Flyer

8 p.m. Oct. 26 at Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $10. (859) 281-1116. Facebook.com/WilliesLEX.

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

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

Constanten has become a part of a performance program with Versailles photographer Don Aters called The Grateful Experience. It mingles music, conversation and Aters' portraits of seminal West Coast counterculture heroes from the 1960s. The two turned up at The Woodford Inn in Versailles earlier this month for a presentation 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.

Friday, 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," Constanten, 68, said 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 brief, from 1968 to early 1970. But that was a period when the Dead solidified itself as a premier band in an active San Francisco psychedelic music scene. He appeared on three pivotal Dead recordings: Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa and Live Dead. His playing also is prevalent on several fine archival concert recordings 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," Constanten said 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 collaborated with modernists Steve Reich and Terry Riley, studied with avant-garde pioneers Karlheinz Stockhauden and Pierre Boulez, and released recordings that have varied from an entire album of variations on the Jorma Kaukonen instrumental Embryonic Journey — with Kaukonen as a duet partner — to a collection of solo piano performances that have ranged 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 Dalí and Alice Cooper. We were awash in possibilities."

The future might make Constanten a regular in Central Kentucky, but he is streamlining his work schedule after suffering a heart attack during the summer.

"My world changed when that happened on July 28," he said. "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."

For Friday's show, Bluegrass Collective, Blind Corn Liquor Pickers and Tonight's Noise are the opening acts.

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