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Spotlight: Holly Bowling

by Chad Berndtson on March 13, 2017

Holly Bowling began her 2016 playing atrium piano sets on Jam Cruise. She ended the year taking in— and gigging around—Phish’s Madison Square Garden run, on the heels of performances at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam and Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads. And, along the way, the San Francisco-based pianist collaborated with Lesh, Bob Weir and a who’s who of scene luminaries in combinations both spare and sprawling.

Not bad for a classically trained 32-year-old pianist whose top claim to fame, until recently, was a mind-bending recreation of Phish’s 37-minute “Tahoe Tweezer” for solo piano.

“Oh, it was as fun as it looked,” Bowling coyly chuckles about her panoramic past year. “I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time playing with so many different people in so many different instrumentations and settings and I’ve absorbed so much.”

Bowling feels like one of the gang now—a staple of the jam scene not only as a longtime fan and listener, but now also as a participating musician earning respect from veterans. She’s been ubiquitous throughout the last 12 months and plans to stay that way throughout the next 12, continuing to tour behind her recently released album of Grateful Dead interpretations, Better Left Unsung, and opening herself up to other collaborations.

“It was pretty clear from the start that she is extremely talented and is able to play the material and her arrangements extremely well,” says Warren Haynes. “But what struck me was that, when thrown into the fire, being as ed earlier that day to be part of Bob Weir’s Christmas Jam band, she was able to adapt and improvise on stage with musicians like Bobby, Steve Kimock and myself who have been playing the material for a while and have developed a chemistry with each other over the years.”

Bowling is often asked about her process. She explains how most new projects begin with an “incubation period” and then a winnowing down of ideas into what songs will actually work. Her versions of “Cassidy,” “Wharf Rat,” “Row Jimmy,” “Dark Star” and the 6/18/74 specific “Eyes of the World”—all among the album’s standouts—suggest a deep understanding of what Bowling calls the “fabric” of the music, where the details are thoroughly scrutinized but the heart remains.

“I was surprised at how some of the simpler stuff was the most difficult to learn and, sometimes, the most rewarding to play,” she says, citing “Wharf Rat” as an example. “There’s all of this open space.”

She’ll bring a similar discipline to future compositions; Bowling is currently making her way through “China Cat Sunflower,” “Estimated Prophet” and “Unbroken Chain” in her Dead workstream. The “Lost Sailor”/“Saint of Circumstance” pairing is another favorite of Bowling’s that she didn’t put on the album but has developed over time.

“Sometimes I’m working on arrangements and then lightbulbs go off out of the blue,” she explains. “Like, why did I never consider ‘Unbroken Chain?’ I’ve heard that forever— how did I miss it? I dove into that one right away.”

On occasion the arrangements flow; other times, they’re a struggle.

“[Phish’s] ‘Stash’ is killing me right now,” Bowling notes. “I wrote something that’s unplayable for my hand size! I can hear in my head how it’ll be, but I keep taking this back to the drawing board.”

Bowling most often performs solo but is open to the idea of bringing a band on the road, as well as more performance opportunities that scratch her improvisational itch.

“It’s an amazing emotional release and a way to tap into complete absorption in the moment that I can’t find anywhere else,” she says of improv. “It’s something that I’ve chased for a long time on the listening side of the music. It’s a feeling I fell in love with a long time ago and wanted to find over and over again.”

Bowling—who has attended hundreds of Phish shows—notes that she still spends a lot of her downtime listening to music from and beyond the jam scene. (British jazz-electronica groovers GoGo Penguin are one recent favorite.)

She credits the time she’s spent with other musicians and greater exposure in the scene with growing her network and expanding her horizons.

“Holly gets it,” says Tom Hamilton, who has played with Bowling in several configurations. “From the fir t time we played together, I felt that I had found a musical equal, conduit and friend. I’m happy to see her gaining the recognition that a woman of her talent deserves and I, personally, would be content to share a stage or studio with her at any time.”

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