The power of rock music has had dramatic effects on society over the past 60-plus years, from launching a transformative counterculture revolution in the ’60s to providing a soundtrack that’s saved countless souls from feeling like they’re lost in a mad and often heartless world. Because the music can be your special friend and make everything feel alright, as legendary rock poets like Jim Morrison and Lou Reed have revealed.
The music has created a form of rock ‘n’ roll religion for two generations and counting. While many music fans aspire to a career as a professional musician, the odds of achieving it are roughly the same as those of becoming a professional athlete. But if you devote yourself to the music, anything is possible, as so many rockers have demonstrated.
Then there’s the even rarer case of a music fan who suddenly finds themselves living the dream after a simple twist of fate that puts them on a unexpected stairway to sonic heaven. Such is the case for rising star Holly Bowling, for whom music was more of a hobby until one night in the summer of 2013, when a transcendent performance by her favorite band Phish in beautiful South Lake Tahoe changed her life in ways she couldn’t imagine at the time.
Bowling wound up transcribing Phish’s 36-minute Tahoe “Tweezer” for solo piano, which catalyzed a career that initially focused on Phish for piano. Now she’s branched out to playing the music of the Grateful Dead (including guest spots with members of the GD), as well as a variety of full band jam sessions that have now made her an in-demand player on the national jamrock circuit.
“It’s been pretty insane, I’m really grateful for the opportunities that have come my way and I’ve just been trying to make the most of them as they appear. And honestly to get to drop my [second] album… and have the chance to play at Phil’s venue and then get to play with Bob is really a dream come true and couldn’t have been more special,” Bowling remarked sincerely in a recent interview with PopMatters, referencing her performances with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir (at Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads and Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas jam in Asheville respectively.)
Jamming on the Dead’s “Eyes of the World” with Weir and renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis was another magical moment in a burgeoning career that suddenly seems full of them (with Marsalis long revered in the rock community for his handful of performances with the Grateful Dead in the early ‘90s.) “Oh man, Pinch me. Honestly, he was a ton of fun to play with. He’s an amazing presence onstage and an amazing musician,” Bowling said of playing with Marsalis. “But he also made me feel comfortable right away on stage, turning around and trading licks with each other right away, for that kind of musician to reach out musically and make you feel at home instantly is really something.”
Bowling’s career ascension traces back to the night of 31 July 2013 when Phish’s epic 36-minute jam on “Tweezer” at Harvey’s Outdoor Arena in South Lake Tahoe altered her personal space-time continuum (an uncanny talent which Phish has been known for throughout their illustrious career.) The “Tahoe Tweezer” as it instantly became known saw the band throwing down one of the longest and most creative jams of their career, made even more special by the collective consciousness interaction between the audience and the band that spurred the transcendent jam to historic heights. It was the rare type of performance that was so impactful it had fans racing back to their hotel rooms to listen to it again right away (thanks to the LivePhish app that makes shows almost instantaneously available in this 21st century golden age of miracles and sound.)
Bowling became somewhat obsessed with the “Tahoe Tweezer”, not unlike most of the other lucky fans in attendance that night. But that obsession soon became more as the San Francisco-based pianist wound up learning parts of the jam, then ultimately transcribing the entire performance for solo piano. She then debuted her own version of the “Tahoe Tweezer” preceding Phish’s visit to San Francisco in 2014 at a lounge just a few blocks from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium where Phish was set to play a three-night run. The audience reaction had a touch of the magic from the original jam in Tahoe and Bowling soon found herself recording an entire album of Phish songs for solo piano, Distillation of a Dream.
“It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and was like oh ding, you know what i should do today is transcribe the ‘Tahoe Tweezer’ start to finish and then arrange it and then put a video on Youtube, it wasn’t like that at all,” Bowling explained. “It was a very powerful experience hearing that piece of music live and I was just listening to it non-stop and when I really get into a piece of music, whether it’s a new album or new song that I can’t stop listening to, I end up working out bits and pieces of it on the piano. And that was so much fun, just these little tiny snippets that I was playing around with, somewhere along the line that turned into the idea of ‘I think i want to write this thing out and transcribe it’, and that snowballed into a much more in-depth project than I had initially imagined.”
Bowling soon found a demand for performing at Phish related events, such as a “Phan Art” show at the band’s 2014-15 New Year’s Eve run in Miami. Club appearances and jam session opportunities followed and then naturally the idea of recording a second album of Grateful Dead songs arranged for solo piano. Bowling was soon performing shows where she mixed the songs of both bands into her repertoire, as well as jamming with like-minded musicians such as the Dead Phish Orchestra from Colorado (a band that covers both Phish and the Grateful Dead, often mashing up their songs in fresh new ways.)
Bowling sat in with Dead Phish Orchestra at the Sweetwater Music Hall in the Bay Area’s Marin County this summer for hot jams on Phish’s “Theme from the Bottom” and the Dead’s version of “I Know You Rider”, showing what a dynamic player she can also be in the context of a full band. A year of peak moments continued when she sat in with rising jamband Twiddle in Vermont, only to be surprised when Phish keyboardist Page McConnell also sat in during the same jam.
As Bowling prepared to release her album of Dead songs, Better Left Unsung, she made her first appearance at Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s club Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, jamming with Lesh and cohorts during a backyard happy hour and playing with the Friday night top 40 band. The 7th of December then saw Bowling play her album release party in the Grate Room at Terrapin, another milestone career achievement. This was followed the same week by her cross country trip to play at Warren Haynes’ annual holiday jam in Asheville, North Carolina where Bowling found herself supporting Haynes, Weir and Marsalis. Distillation of a dream indeed.
Bowling was riding high off her album release show at Terrapin, where she played two sets of Dead classics in the Grate Room while Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band rocked out in the bar (enabling fans to catch some of both, with Lesh and friends throwing down a smoking “Sweet Jane” / “Scarlet Begonias” / “Fire on the Mountain” sequence during Bowling’s setbreak.) Her first set featured dynamic performances of Jerry Garcia classics like “Help on the Way”, the full “Terrapin Station Suite” and Weir’s classic “Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance” combo.
As with her Phish performances, there’s something about Bowling’s solo approach to the music that reveals how much depth these songs have with the harmonic elements being stripped down in a way that highlights the lyrical melodies. The same was true of her second set performance of the Dead’s seminal “Dark Star”. She also performed her transcribed rendition of the Dead’s 18 June 1974 performance of “Eyes of the World”, but what’s interesting about the 27-minute “Dark Star” on Better Left Unsung is how Bowling improvised the whole thing as opposed to transcribing a classic version.
“It’s entirely improvised, it’s actually the first take and it’s one single take. I went into the studio with no idea on that track other than that I wanted to go in with no idea. I really wanted it to be a blank slate and open canvass,” Bowling said of the “Dark Star”on her album. “I guess the thing that’s similar there [to full band versions] is that when I’m improvising in a solo piano context, it’s that same willingness to let go and be open to what appears in front of you and then develop that. And that’s the space that I look for whether I’m playing by myself or playing with ten other people…”
True to improvisational form, Bowling passed on playing her album’s “Dark Star” in favor of a crowd pleasing “Dark Star” / “Wharf Rat” / “Beautiful Jam” sequence, noting from the stage that “The Beautiful Jam” was transcribed from a jam the Dead performed at their 18 February 1971 show.
“Honestly, when it’s going really well, whether you’re playing with other people or playing solo, there’s a moment where I don’t feel that I’m the one playing,” Bowling said, alluding to the Dead’s song “The Music Never Stopped”, with it’s lyric about striving for a place where “the music plays the band”, a song about the GD’s unique musical power. “Ideally, when I’m playing the best, I feel like a conduit. And although I have agency, in a lot of ways, especially if I’m playing solo, it’s sort of surrendering that agency and getting out of the way. I guess it’s listening to something beyond, even when i’m the only one on stage playing, if that makes any sense.”
It makes perfect sense to Bowling’s growing legion of fans, for it’s that same adventurous spirit which has fueled the careers of the Grateful Dead and Phish. But while she’s used the music of the jamrock world’s two most accomplished bands as stepping stones, Bowling is now plotting to rock the nation with her own music on her next project.
“Album number three is gonna be Holly Bowling plays the music of Holly Bowling,” the pianist says with a chuckle. “I’m still figuring out what form that’s going to take as far as what kind of instrumentation I’m going to have there. But I think, right now I’m really enjoying, I mean its funny, there’s like a lag on all this stuff. I really threw myself into this music, the Dead’s music about a year ago, really intensely trying to get ready to record this album… and there’s a lag time until it really comes to fruition on the other side. So right now I’m super excited to play that music and take it out on the road and support the album and at the same time, I very much have my mind on to the next thing that I’m excited to explore here. It’s a nice balance at the moment between the two…”
Look for Bowling on tour in 2017 playing the music of Phish and the Grateful Dead as well as her own developing originals, in both solo piano format and who knows what type of all-star band collaborations.
“It really allows you to span a lot of ground musically and emotionally when you have both catalogs to pull from, because they’re really different,” Bowling says of Phish and the Grateful Dead. “You know, anytime you’re gonna put ‘Wharf Rat’ and ‘It’s Ice’ in the same show you better have a lot of space in between to figure out how you’re gonna get from point A to point B because they are very far apart from each other. That space in between is really where a lot of my interest lies, I like that kind of thing.”