Pianist Holly Bowling adapts Phish and Grateful Dead jams for solo piano in Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Holly Bowling
Where: Aspen District Theatre
When: Friday, Feb. 2, 7 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: At the door and eventbrite.com
Most of us in Colorado know somebody who claims that seeing a Phish concert changed their life.
But for Holly Bowling, the statement is undeniably true.
In late July 2013, Bowling road-tripped from San Francsico to Lake Tahoe to see Phish at Harveys Outdoor Arena. It’s one of 300-plus shows she’s attended by the Vermont-based jam-band titans.
But this performance included an epic, extended 36-minute jam version of “Tweezer” with a call and response “woo” section that instantly became the stuff of legend. The Phish faithful often rank the version — known as the “Tahoe Tweezer” — at the top of the band’s jams.
After witnessing it live, Bowling was entranced. She listened to a recording of it four times before going to bed that night, she recalled in a recent phone interview. And she spun it, more or less, on repeat during the whole drive home to the Bay Area.
“I knew I was going to spend some serious time with this piece of music,” she recalled. “But I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t leave the show thinking, ‘I should sit down with a big stack of paper and a pencil and write it out note-for-note and arrange it for piano.’”
But that’s precisely what Bowling, a classically trained pianist, ended up doing. She spent the better part of a year in Talmudic study of “Tahoe Tweezer” and distilling it into a work for solo piano.
This devoted act of love for the song sparked a national phenomenon. Bowling began performing it live, drawing crowds of Phish fans around the country, and then released a full album of Phish adaptations, “Distillation of a Dream,” in 2015. It included interpretations of Phish songs and of other particularly memorable live jams like “The Wedge” from a July 2014 show in Chicago and “Twist” from an October 2013 set in Glenn Falls, New York, along with her “Tahoe Tweezer.”
Bowling soon expanded to the catalog of the Grateful Dead. Before long, her work drew the attention of the bands.
Phish bassist Mike Gordon came, unannounced, to an early Bowling performance in Philadelphia and gave her a thumbs-up. Phish keyboardist Page McConnell sat side-stage, without Bowling’s knowledge, at a Vermont performance of “Squirming Coil.” The Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir began inviting Bowling to play with them.
On Friday, she’s bringing her act to Aspen. Bowling will perform at the District Theatre on Friday night, after giving a master class to Aspen High School band students where she’ll discuss transcription, arrangement and translating songs between musical languages.
Bowling doesn’t adapt songs note-for-note, or attempt to include every intricacy of every song. But she has an uncanny knack for capturing their essence.
“I end up picking the one thing that’s the leader in the section — whatever the dominant melody line is or the big idea that the music is trying to get across,” she explained. “It’s not like I always start with Trey’s guitar of Jerry’s guitar.”
True to the Phish and Dead spirit, her shows are not staid classical recitals — they include a lot of free-form improvisation and extended techniques.
Translating jam-based rock songs for solo piano is a painstaking and intense creative process. It requires a deep study and imagination along with virtuosic piano skill.
“She’s really splitting up the band into four parts of her two hands, which is really cool,” singer-songwriter Marco Benevento says in the short documentary “Holly Bowling: Distilling a Dream.”
The investment of time required to finish a piece, Bowling explained, actually makes it easy to choose which songs to adapt: she goes for her favorites.
“If I’m not head-over-heels in love with the music, it’s never going to take,” she said. “It’s the thing you can’t stop listening to. The thing you lose your mind over every time you hear the best moment in the improvisation. Those are the ones that end up getting the treatment.”
But there are some songs Bowling has to steer away from.
“If there’s a piece that’s driven by what the drums are doing, or if that’s the key part of the improvisation, then I’m not going to pick that because I feel it’s not going to serve the music very well,” Bowling explained.
The piano can’t sustain a note indefinitely, as a guitar might. It can’t bend from one pitch to another, as the human voice can. Figuring out how to create those sounds with a solo piano arrangement is her primary challenge.
“There’s all these things that the human voice and a guitar can do that a piano can’t,” she said. “So it becomes this cool puzzle. How do you reflect what’s happening, even if you can’t exactly emulate it?”
Her performances have obviously been a huge draw for the legion of Phish lovers and Deadheads. But they’ve also drawn classical aficionados and some uninitiated listeners.
“It’s an easier sell to people who like Phish and the Dead that they’re going to like the music,” Bowling said. “I’ve been really touched by people who’ve reached out and said they weren’t familiar with the bands’ music but they heard my version and that it was a pathway for them to appreciate what’s going on musically.”
Bowling followed her Phish-based album with a Dead record, “Better Left Unsung,” and is now beginning to branch out into making original music. This spring she’ll start touring with her new band, Ghost Light, formed with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist Tom Hamilton.
“This feels like the right next step,” she said. “The improvisational element is the driving force behind my solo shows and that’s going to be the driving force of this new band, too.”
Ironically, the success of her Phish adaptations and the touring career they’ve spawned for Bowling have kept her away from seeing as many Phish concerts as she used to. But playing her interpretations and arrangements, at shows like Friday’s in Aspen, she said, can be as fulfilling: “It’s a different way of continuing to appreciate and love this music that’s meant a lot to me over the years.”
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