North Carolina

T.C.

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Through the years I’ve been fortunate to study a variety of instruments with a variety of teachers. Around the time I started junior high school I started piano lessons with a new piano teacher. Before our first lesson I went out and bought several of the teacher’s records. I was instantly inspired by his mastery of the piano.  He was a brilliant player - and happened to be a former member of the Grateful Dead.

 In 1968 Tom Constanten became the keyboardist for the Grateful Dead. Prior to his rock n’ roll career Tom studied piano in Paris and Brussels. During the Vietnam war he enlisted in the Air Force as a computer programmer. A day after his honorable discharge he made his first live appearance with the Grateful Dead. Tom went on to play with Jefferson Starship as well as tour the world as a solo pianist. In 1994 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Grateful Dead.

 Sixth grade not only marked the beginning of junior high school, it was also when I became a Deadhead. I listened to every album I could get my hands on. I checked out books about The Dead from the library. I bought every live concert VHS tape I could find and watched it until I had it memorized. I’m sure the adults around me raised an eyebrow given the drug culture that went hand in hand with Grateful Dead lore.  I was so young most of the drug references went above my head - and I could’ve cared less - I was there for the music!

 My lessons with Tom quickly became my favorite part of the week. He encouraged me and pushed me to be a better player. Often times I would have a list of questions about his career or the Grateful Dead that I would bring with me. Amused, he would always answer. I remember once I asked him about Jerry Garcia’s role as lead guitarist (I pronounced “lead” like the chemical element Pb). Tom dryly responded, “Well it was very heavy.”

 We’ve lost touch through the years but I remember my time with Tom fondly. Not only is he a brilliant player he is a kind and beautiful human. I miss our talks. One thing I’ve come to know is that nobody is self made. We are all molded and influenced by people and experiences along the way.

"I know of no path that is better marked than the study of music. Maybe I just think so because it's the path I'm on. There's the old question "How come there's never enough time to do it right, but there's always enough time to do it over." Well, here's an answer. Settle down. Do it right. However long it takes. That's the direct route to the fast lane!"

 - Tom Constanten

The End of an Era.

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is off to a roaring start for all of you. Please pardon my absence from writing, I have been ill for a while and then was on the road. I’m now back in Chicago and feeling great just in time for the new year. During my recent travels back to North Carolina over the holiday I was able to stop by one of my most favorite places in the world - 1218 Charlottetowne Ave, better known as The Double Door Inn.

The Double Door has been a Charlotte institution and destination for music fans and musicians alike since it opened it’s doors in 1973.  It has fostered many generations musicians including myself and so many of my colleagues. The likes of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn have graced the Double Door stage as well as countless blues and rock ‘n’ roll greats. Even before I was old enough to get in the Double Door was on my radar.

From the outside it doesn’t look like much. The worn paint and sagging roof make it easy to overlook. Inside the walls are lined with photos of bands and artists that have performed on it's stage. From Leon Russell to Pinetop Perkins, the Double Door is really a sanctuary of the blues. When I was finally old enough to get in the bar I quickly became a regular on Monday nights.

Photographs of bluesmen cover the walls of The Double Door

Photographs of bluesmen cover the walls of The Double Door

 

Every Monday night for some twenty odd years a group of Charlotte’s best musicians have gathered to form a band that became known as The Monday Night Allstars. Led for many years by my mentor’s mentor the great Charles Hairston, Monday nights became legendary for the band’s powerful mix of classic r&b and soul music. I’ve seen performances on that stage that I will remember for the rest of my life. The band has had a few personnel changes through the years but it has always delivered some of the best music I’ve ever heard.

Over my Christmas visit to North Carolina I set foot in this sacred place for the last time. By the time you are reading this the Double Door will have officially closed it’s doors for good. My last Monday night visit was extraordinary. There was a line out the door as the club was at capacity. Band members from all eras of the band were present to display their talents one last time. As I listened to the music that night I couldn’t help but think of all the incredible nights I’ve spent immersed in the sounds that I love so much.

I remember all the incredible musicians that I’ve met at the Double Door. The great Jim Brock, Ziad Rabie, Chris Allen, Joe Lindsay, Rick Blackwell - several of these characters make appearances on my record. I would always sit in the front row so I could study their every note. The first time I got to sing on the stage I remember being terrified. I remember being moved to tears by an amazing version of “People Get Ready” by Carey Sims and the band. I remember the first time I met my dear friends Pat and Jessica as we bonded over our shared love of music. The Double Door has been a formative experience in my life and I think most every musician in Charlotte shares that sentiment.


The next time I roll into town the old bar will be gone. I’ve heard a parking deck is taking it’s place - there’s a blues song if I ever heard one. Of course I’m sad it’s all over, but I feel so lucky that I got to experience all the things I did thanks to the Double Door. The only thing we can ever be sure of is that everything will change. As we begin this new year we can honor those things no longer with us by being present wherever we are, and taking a minute to appreciate the beauty and talent around us. Check out some video of the Double Door below.

Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve attempted to write this post for over two hours. Originally, I felt compelled to say something about the events in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina this week. But really, what can I say? If you want that then turn on the news or just sign into Facebook for a constant stream of opinions and hateful comments. The bottom line is a man is dead and a police officer has to live with a choice he made for the rest of his life. A victory for no one, and heartbreak for all.

This week has gotten to me. Not just because of current events, but how we respond them. I don’t even read gossip magazines but somehow I know about Brad Pitt’s divorce. WHY. I think I’m experiencing some of the negative aspects of how plugged in our world is now. There is so much noise it’s hard to think.

I want to sit at a table with someone who is the complete opposite of me and have a conversation. I want to trade the CNN style of seeing who can shout the loudest for meaningful connection and dialogue. So many things are happening around us - the election, shootings, climate change, government surveillance, our own personal lives… Do I need to go on? There is so much at stake and I feel like we are going to blow it because we are too busy shouting.

So this weekend, I’m going to unplug, spend some time by Lake Michigan, work on my music, look a stranger in the eye - maybe even read a book. Sunday night you can find me at the blues club on Halsted Street playing with my friends. I know this post was a bit unfocused but that's where my  head is at the moment.  

I’ll leave you with this song that my mentor and producer Carey Sims wrote. When I find myself overwhelmed I often turn to this song for comfort.