Songs To Fill The Air: Holly Bowling On Her New Grateful Dead Inspired Album & More


Holly Bowling’s emergence as someone equally as gifted on piano as she is humble and talented in music composition has relied on several connections that have formed an early career theme. From the initial connection she had attending Phish’s epic Tahoe “Tweezer” (sober, for the record), to the connection fans had to her interpretation of the famed Tahoe “Tweezer” itself, across her intricate, impressive compositions, to her 15-track album she released in 2014 comprised of Phish tunes transcribed on piano, much has come from that one fateful evening in Tahoe. She hasn’t stopped touring and hustling since, and it seems Holly has now arrived at the intersection of jam music and rite of passage held in the highest regard: a welcoming entrance into the Grateful Dead family.

Introduced for the first time on Wednesday night in her dream venue of the Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads, Holly shared her collection of classical piano compositions originally performed by the Grateful Dead, many of which she recorded for her new album entitled Better Left Unsung. Don’t expect any lyrics on this set of works, even though you may have heard Holly dabble in vocals in some of her other arrangements.

It’s no surprise in the realm of interconnectedness that her first, Phish-inspired album was entitled, Distillation Of A Dream. As “distillation” is defined as: “the extraction of the essential meaning or most important aspects of something,” Holly proves that intention can manifest the greatest gifts, explaining that “this has truly been (her) dream” and that “it feels very much like a journey coming full circle – to get to have this release party at Terrapin is incredibly special for me.”

Officially released today, Better Left Unsung marks a truly exciting time for both Holly and her label, Royal Potato Family. RPF have curated a diverse and genuinely talented pool of great people who also happen to be outlandishly gifted musicians. Many kudos to Holly and RPF on the release today. Without further adieu, Holly Bowling.

JamBase: With the release of Better Left Unsung today, we’re excited about your connection to Phil Lesh and appearances at Terrapin Crossroads. Can you speak on how that came to be?

Holly Bowling: Definitely. So I had this really cool opportunity recently to play at Terrapin Crossroads (November 4). I was on keys, Ross James was on guitar, and Eric DiBerardino was playing acoustic guitar even though he normally plays bass for Tea Leaf Green. Obviously, Phil played bass. So that was the lineup, we had no drums.

I was supposed to actually just play a few solo sets there at first! Then I was asked pretty last minute, “Do you mind if Phil and Ross join you?” and I mean … who says no to that? [laughs]

JB: That’s great! I don’t think anyone would say no to that. Do you feel you take more of a lead depending on the type of arrangement you’re in?

HB: Oh, definitely. I think [I did] that day since it was set up to be “Holly Bowling,” and people had joined me, rather than if it would have been one of Phil’s lineups, I would have approached it differently. I felt I had the go-ahead to do something closer to my solo thing, and less look for the role that I’d try to fill in say, a five-piece.

But, you know, with that music, it’s not like one person has to be the band leader and call the shots. The whole point is for it to be a conversation and everyone making a contribution and listening to one another. I’ve always thought of the Dead’s music as less of a “band leader” situation and more of a “group mind” type of thing.

JB: That’s absolutely true. How was the show for you overall?

HB: It was a ton of fun for me. I enjoyed every minute of it. I kind of expected that I would be nervous playing with Phil for the first time, but everything just really flowed well and felt really good.

JB: I read that you really took a liking to the June 18, 1974 version of “Eyes Of The World” [performed for the JamBase Songs Of Their Own video series] and were inspired to include it on Better Left Unsung. Can you expand on that at all?

HB: [laughs] Yes! Yes. Very much so. The thing that made me fall in love with that “Eyes” was partially the minor-key breakdown in the middle, in seven. They only did it for a couple years in the mid-1970s and I really really like that. But, it doesn’t narrow it down to just that one “Eyes.”

That version goes a little bit darker than other versions and really gets into some atonal dissonance spots for a minute before the sunshine breaks back through and cracks the whole thing open again. That kind of improvisation for me, and that spanning of darkness and light, and dissonance and bliss, that kind of contrast is something I’m really drawn to, so it made me fall in love with that particular version.

JB: That is a beautiful explanation. And as for the rest of the album, were you typically drawn to that era of Dead?

HB: Well, 1970s Dead is definitely my favorite Dead. I don’t think I’m alone in that camp [laughs].

JB: Definitely not. Would you say that Keith (Godchaux) is who you look to as “the Dead keys player” that you look to when learning the catalog?

HB: I wouldn’t say when I’m learning the catalog, but if I’m choosing what show to throw on and listen to it, that’s definitely where I tend to head. I love Keith’s playing, and I love where the band was at as a whole in that period. I also feel like the palette of sounds he used was just much more my speed.

You know, it’s not to say that I don’t love the variety, which sadly, there were so many keyboardists throughout the history of the Dead. But Keith was definitely my favorite, not to the detriment of the other guys.

JB: Love it. Do you have any other anecdotes or background stories on specific dates you chose to learn for tracks on this album?

HB: You know, the only track that was based off a specific live performance was that one, the Freedom Hall “Eyes.” The other ones are not based on any particular live performance. Any of the rest of the time, in any other track that strays off from the structure of the original song is my own take on it, my improv.

The thing I think most clearly illustrates the dichotomy of what I’m doing in my live shows, and also what I did on this album is this: On the one hand, you have this version of the Dead’s song, “Eyes Of The World” that I wrote down note for note, even the improv, and then arranged it. It’s fully their work, with my own slant on it, but it’s still their subject material, even in the jams.

On the other hand, you have “Dark Star.” I think there’s about two minutes of material in that song that is the same every time consistently. Yet, it clocks in on the album at I think 27 minutes. [laughs] So, there is so much to work with, yet … so little to work with! [laughs]

You can see what I’m saying. Endless possibilities. When I went to record it in the studio, I really wanted to record it as one continuous track with no edits. I just went in, sat down, and just played. I felt transported. When that happens to me, as for I think most people, you lose track of time. I finished recording it, walked out, and my engineer told me it was about 30 minutes long! I couldn’t believe it. But my first thought was actually, “Oh no! That’s not gonna fit on a record!” [laughs]

It was all one take, nothing was changed besides a few extended techniques. I had timpani mallets going inside the piano, plucking strings and went back and overdubbed them. We used a metal slide on some bass strings for some metallic sounding effects and we also used a wand that is kind of like an Ebo. It’s like a string exciter, so you get infinite sustain by getting them to vibrate, but there’s no attack since nothing has to hit it so it seems more natural. We played around with all of this on top of the original track, but it’s all laid on top of that first, original track that we didn’t touch which was entirely improvised.

So to me, those two tracks are kind of the opposite ends of the album. From “What is really structured” vs. “What’s not?” and What is the Dead’s take on their music” and “What is my own take on their music, and how far can I push it?” And I just feel like the rest of the album kind of all lies somewhere in between those two landmarks, if that makes sense.

JB: Very well said and explained. I think it also speaks well to how the Dead operated in their own catalog. Some covers sounded identical to an original folk song, other times you found out later that it wasn’t a Dead original and it seemed shocking!

HB: The things that are true to form and things that are entirely a departure. I think there’s room for both. So the Dead did that. I guess I’m trying to do that too.

JB: So are you saying we will not get to hear this monstrous “Dark Star?”

HB: You know, I was bummed it wouldn’t fit on vinyl, but it is still going to be a digital download with every record. So if you get the CD it will be on there. But if you get the LP you’ll still get a digital download of “Dark Star.”

I didn’t want to chop it up to make it fit. I hope people are cool with it, but I was too proud of it to condense it and make it … more radio-friendly. [laughs]

JB: It really is so cool that you’re doing this and are able to put your touch on works of music that have been so profound in your life and in so many people’s lives. You’re planning a full tour, right?

HB: Oh yea. After Terrapin Crossroads, we’ll take off. I’ve been touring with Joe Marcinek Band too and doing a variety of solo spots and sit-ins when I can.

JB: Joe is one of the most underrated and hardworking musicians in the industry. Congrats on working with him, he is great.

HB: He is so great. He gets such great lineups and it is so fun to play with other musicians who love to play music. He curates those lineups so I always have a blast playing with him and it’s an honor to be invited.

JB: Because of your classical teachings and your taste in jam music, do you have any funny stories or interesting mentions of exposing someone who is into classical music to Phish or the Dead or other jam music? Or the reverse?

HB: Well, [laughs] this will actually out me as the crazy Phish fan that I am. But I was catching a big run of Phish shows and at the same time I was playing some shows on the road and trying to fit in practice and rehearsing while I was on tour for Phish. You can imagine as a pianist this is difficult. [laughs] It’s not like being a trumpet player where you can just carry it with you and bust it out.

So, needless to say I booked some rehearsal spaces ahead of time and one of the spots I ended up in was a multi-use space. I was in there for two hours practicing my version of the Tahoe “Tweezer.” I didn’t know this, but there were some theatre auditions being held in the next time slot. Of course, I was pushing my minutes to my full two hours, so I had no idea there was a listening audience on the other side of the door. It was primarily a much older crowd, definitely not a Phish crowd.

As I was leaving, a man in his 70s came up to me and was just raving about the power of the music he had just heard pouring through the doors. He asked me, “I have to know this composer! I have to know! I’ve never heard anything like this!”

And I just said smiling, “That would be Phish.”

I gave him some info, directed him to some of their music and where he could listen to the Tahoe “Tweezer.” I don’t know if he ever followed through but I think that alone shows the continuity and the power of emotional expression in both worlds of music; classical and jam. When you strip away the stereotypes and how far removed the audience members may be from one another, they actually have a lot in common. I’m hoping to show people that too.

Tour Dates for
Holly Bowling

  • Feb
    • 710 Main St
    • Frisco, CO 80443
    • United States
    • 17201 N. Route 29
    • Chillicothe, IL 61523
    • United States
    • 5900 South Water Road
    • Rothbury, MI 49452
    • United States
    • 1000 Montage Mountain Rd
    • Scranton, PA 18507
    • United States