Step Into the Freezer: Holly Bowling Revamps Grateful Dead and Phish Tunes as a Solo Pianist

click to enlarge Step Into the Freezer: Holly Bowling Revamps Grateful Dead and Phish Tunes as a Solo Pianist
Jessie Bell
For more than 50 years now, the music of the Grateful Dead has inspired musicians around the world. In the mid-80s, four nerds from Vermont got together and changed American rock history in much the same way, in that same spirit of community-based freedom. That band was called Phish. One of their most iconic songs is about cellular biology.

Holly Bowling, a pianist from San Francisco, is one of those musicians who’s been struck by the power of those two bands and their respective roles in our shared culture. She took that inspiration and flipped it around, arranging songs to fit her work on solo piano. For bands whose legacies are bent on reinvention, it was a great and unexpected move.

“It seems like a pretty unlikely combination because most people would not throw solo piano and classical piano with Phish and the Dead into the same mix,” Bowling tells Scene with a laugh. But ever since she was kid, she’s been playing piano. Her parents filled their home with the music of the Grateful Dead, and Bowling grew up thinking about music through the lens of that band’s unique style of songwriting.

“Then I got really into Phish in high school,” Bowling says, referencing Trey Anastasio’s penchant for deeply involved compositions. “These have all been big parts of who I am and strong loves for me, musically for a large portion of my life. In that sense, it feels like a very natural combination for me.”

As Bowling was growing into her voice as a musician, she continued going to Phish shows and applying those lessons — highly intricate compositional narrative paired with fluid, experimental improvisation — to her own take on the piano. Then something important happened — not just to Bowling, but to the entire Phish community. It was a lightning bolt of mysticism that touched down in Stateline, Nevada, in July 2013. It was the “Tahoe Tweezer.”

Briefly: Phish returned from a five-year split after calling it quits in a muddy Vermont field back in 2004. It’s a long story, but the band has been important to an untold number of people around the world, including Bowling, and there was every compelling reason in the book for them to get back together once the time was right. From 2009 onward, they worked hard to regain their smooth mastery onstage; the Tahoe Tweezer was far from the first flash of post-Coventry brilliance, but it remains one of the most talked-about jams in modern Phish history.

Bowling was at that show, and she was deeply inspired. “I went home and spent the next year or so writing the Tahoe Tweezer out, note for note, and then arranging it for solo piano,” she says. “I ended up loving how the music translated to my instrument, and this whole thing started to take shape.”

For the most part, Bowling's sets these days revolve around studio compositions from Phish and the Grateful Dead. A recent show featured “Taste,” “The Curtain With,” “Help is on the Way” > “Slipknot!” and “Dark Star.” With respect to that last one, Bowling mentions how she’s developed the two-minute studio track into her own 27-minute version that’s sort of similar to how the Dead would reinvent it every time. Another recent show featured the Glens Falls "Twist," for instance, written and performed in its entirety and showcasing how Bowling deals with the open-ended nature of Phish and the Dead’s music.

“One of the things that I love about these bands is the music that’s totally improvised and unpredictable and created in the moment,” Bowling says. “I’ve taken that and written it down and made it exactly the same every time I play it, turning into a classical-style thing. It’s kind of a weird way to flip it on its head.” She calls those works “jam transcriptions.”

Lest ye be confused by some of terminology here, Bowling says that her shows have attracted a fairly wide spectrum of people. She’s run into a lot of Deadheads who never really gave Phish a chance and couldn’t tell “Taste” from “Waste,” and she’s been heartened to find out how much they enjoyed the crossover. She’s also found a nice bridge between her stuff and the classical music crowd in a given city.

As far as what’s next? There are hundreds of other songs in both bands’ repertoires for Bowling to explore — especially the Dead catalog. (One Scene writer feels compelled to note, for the record, that “Sugaree” would be a lovely choice.) Her new album, Better Left Unsung, features some great Dead stuff, like “Bird Song,” “Row Jimmy” and the “Terrapin Station” suite.

And Bowling is also planning on performing some of her original work along the way, too. She’s been writing a lot lately. “It’s going to be an exciting year,” she says.

An Evening With Holly Bowling: The Music Of Phish And The Grateful Dead Reimagined For Solo Piano
8 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 8, The Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., 216-771-6551
Tickets: Sold out.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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