Words: Sean Moore
To experience Holly Bowling’s music live is like watching a skilled magician’s performance; both leave you wondering what you’ve just seen (or heard) in utter amazement. To make another comparison between the classically trained pianist ability to reimagine two of her favorite jam bands (re: Phish and the Grateful Dead) and a magician might seem exhaustive, but tying all three together with this simple statement: you never know what any of them will do. The way Holly Bowling pays tribute to these bands is something absolutely beautiful. Sometimes “tributes” can be hit or miss, but this is not the case with Bowling. The way she reimagines Phish and Dead tunes with her piano had the crowd enraptured and nodding, tapping their feet and hooting. She started the night with the Dead’s “Sage and Spirit,” a good opening song. Then, the magic of her improvisational skills really shined as she played Phish’s “Mike’s Song” (a perfect sketch of a song that lends itself to jamming and improv). She played in and out of it, combining the Dead’s “Cryptical Envelopment” and “The Other One,” returning back to Phish’s tune and segueing into their songs “I Am Hydrogen” and “Weekapaug Groove,” and then back to the Dead’s tunes, before ending the final segment with “Weekapaug Groove.” The entire jam lasted nearly 30 minutes, and not once did Bowling’s fingers lose their placements as they danced around the keys of the piano with utter perfection. Although her face showed complete focus and determination, she cracked a few smiles throughout her performance, which proved she was having just as much fun as the crowd. Playing covers of well-loved songs is a risk in and of itself, reimagining them is a completely different level of risk, but Bowling proves not just her love and devotion to the originals, but that she is a masterful student of her classical training. There were moments I looked on with amazement and wonder, especially when Bowling stood up and bent over the open-faced piano and created a whole new sound with the innards of the piano. At some points, creating a whining sound from rubbing the tightened strings; other times, taking a feathered drumstick and lightly hitting the strings, all while still dancing her fingers along the keys.
She ended her first set with a beautifully crafted combination of “The Wheel” and “Divided Sky.” The crowd sat in their chairs enjoying Bowling’s improvisational skills at Port City Music Hall for just about an hour and a half, before getting this set break. The length of the set made me wonder how Holly’s fingers didn’t tire or cramp from their 90 minute exercise. The intermission lasted about fifteen minutes before Bowling returned to the stage, wide smile on her face, thanking the crowd for showing up, and then sitting back down in front of her shiny black piano. Focus and determination returned to her face as she began playing the Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower,” splicing in “Wharf Rat” and part of “The Wheel” in such a way that left the seated audience in awe.
I found the crowd far too small for such an incredible musician such as Holly Bowling, but the size of the audience that came to experience her performance didn’t seem to bother, nor did it temper her delivery. Sometimes it can be frustrating as a lover of live music to see small crowds at shows, it is especially frustrating when the live show is as amazing and stunning as Bowling’s on this Friday night. I wanted to stand out on the sidewalk at intermission and demand that passersby come inside and experience what was going on within the confines of Port City Music Hall. But, at the same time, I loved that this unique experience was only mine and the crowd inside. Her second set was just as beautiful as the first, with gorgeous arrangements of more Phish tunes, like “Mercury” and “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.” Bowling ended the set by combining the latter with the Dead’s “I Know You Rider.” The crowd released a collective sigh of appreciation and applause, which perhaps enticed the pianist to come back and play Phish’s “Squirming Coil” as an encore, capping off the night of classical piano doing things I did not think an instrument was capable of.
When the night was over, I looked at the time and realized she had played for nearly three hours! The length rivaling that of a Phish and/or Grateful Dead show. Holly Bowling just released a live album, aptly titled “Live at the Old Church,” which she is ultimately touring in support of, and I strongly suggest everyone give it a listen; but by all means, if you can, see her perform these songs live. You will not regret it.