5 Noteworthy Grateful Dead Songs Featuring Keyboardist Tom Constanten in Honor of His 80th Birthday

Former Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten celebrated his 80th birthday on March 19, 2024. Constanten was a member of the band from 1968 to 1970, exiting the group amid clashes with some of the other members.

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Constanten was a classically trained pianist who also studied jazz and modernist composers. He befriended and became roommates with future Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in 1961, when both were attending University of California, Berkeley.

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Constanten went on to study music in Europe, and eventually returned to the Bay Area, where he played in an improvisational group with minimalist composer Steve Reich. While serving in the Air Force, Constanten was invited to take part in the sessions for The Grateful Dead’s second album, Anthem of the Sun.

Constanten contributed piano to some songs, and also brought his avant-garde influences to the album, adding treated piano and tape loops.

After being honorably discharged from his military service, Constanten was made a full-fledged member of The Grateful Dead in 1968. He was featured on the band’s third studio record, Aoxomoxoa (1969), and the group’s 1969 live album, Live/Dead.

Here are five noteworthy Grateful Dead tracks featuring Constanten:

“That’s It for the Other One” (Anthem of the Sun, 1968)

“That’s It for the Other One” is the lead track on Anthem of the Sun. The song is a suite featuring four sections, the last of which, “We Leave the Castle,” was composed solely by Constanten. The piece is an avant-garde sonic exploration featuring various percussion instruments, prepared piano, tape loops, sound effects, and more.

“Alligator” (Anthem of the Sun, 1968)

“Alligator” is a funky, New Orleans-inspired tune co-written by Lesh, Rod “Pigpen” McKernan, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Constanten’s tinkling, classically influenced piano runs are prominent in the early section of the song, before the track transforms into a long percussion jam.

“St. Stephen” (Aoxomoxoa, 1969)

The first song on Aoxomoxoa, “St. Stephen” is a fan favorite from The Grateful Dead’s early period. Frontman Jerry Garcia co-wrote the tune with Lesh and Hunter. Constanten arranged and played keyboards on the track. His playing is most audible in the closing minute of the tune.

“China Cat Sunflower” (Aoxomoxoa, 1969)

“China Cat Sunflower” is a joyful psychedelic gem that was one of the most frequently performed songs in the Grateful Dead catalog. The tune was co-written by Garcia and Hunter. As with “St. Stephen,” Constanten arranged and played keyboards on the song. His understated organ creates a nice base for Garcia’s infectious guitar noodling.

“Dark Star” (Live/Dead, 1969)

Live/Dead, The Grateful Dead’s fourth album and first live record, kicks off with a 23-plus-minute version of “Dark Star.” The song was recorded on February 27, 1969, at the famed San Francisco concert venue the Fillmore West.

The studio version of “Dark Star” was released in 1968 as a non-album single and ran just 2 minutes and 44 seconds. However, when The Grateful Dead began performing the tune live, it became a showcase for the band to play lengthy, improvisational psychedelic jams.

Constanten arranged and played the keyboards on the Live/Dead version of the song, and his organ permeates and enhances the performance throughout.

Although his tenure in The Grateful Dead was brief, Constanten was welcomed into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when the band was inducted in 1994.

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