Holly Bowling in Carrboro, NC 9/25/19

Holly Bowling brought her passionate yet playful piano renditions of Phish and the Dead to NC for a soulful sonic celebration

Holly Bowling brought her passionate yet playful piano renditions of Phish and the Grateful Dead to Carrboro, NC for a deep dive into the catalogs of the jamband world's two most revered acts. It was particularly poignant hearing instrumental versions of Dead songs the day after the passing of iconic lyricist Robert Hunter, as if the words themselves had somehow been struck silent, leaving just the music in their wake. There were many moments where the crowd subconsciously sang along in barely audible whispers, as if in prayer and reverence to the fallen spirit whose lyrics lit our lives with sense and color and held away despair. But far from a moment of silence, this evening was a two-hour long sonic and soulful celebration of his joyous creations.

The show began with the percussive bounce of "St. Stephen," whose gorgeous melodic backbone was fully revealed once stripped of its text. The intricacies of the Dead's intermingling musical motifs shine with radiance in such a setting, allowing their compositional muscle to flex all on its own. Her masterful mood manipulations morphed into "Taste" and "It's Ice" to follow, bringing into sharp relief the striking differences between the approaches of Phish and the Dead, despite how often they're conflated by those seeking to simplify. Certainly a shared philosophy and fanbase unites them, though in truth their boundless oeuvres sound little alike, with Phish's fitful flights of fancy proving a worthy but contrasting counterpoint to the classic idioms of the Dead's more ancestral leanings.

The set rolled on with "Althea" traveling back to "St. Stephen" for the "William Tell Bridge" and "The Eleven" before springing into intermission with "The Squirming Coil," a song long renowned for its elegant and expansive piano solo. There's a potent yet undefinable power to instrumental music, in one sense casting the listener free from definition and yet drafting in their own inspiration, leaving them to decide what, if anything, the song needs to be "about." With nothing explicit to grasp onto, the mind is set loose to either compose its own poetry or howl into the eternal ether.

The goosebump notes of "Terrapin Station" stoked the coals for the second set, twirling into "Twist" and the infinite possibilities of "Dark Star," which included a devious deviation into Radiohead's "Daydreaming." The video screen behind her started the show with an overhead view of her fingers flying across the keys, then slowly transformed throughout the night into a glorious display of psychedelic imagery perfectly complementing her improvisational excursions of imagination and ecstasy. Left purely to her own devices, without three or five other bandmates to stay mindlocked with, she is in many senses unleashed to explore and create even more freely than the bands whose songs she's playing. She clearly revels in this freedom, repeatedly crawling inside the piano to pluck and bang new sounds from its guts, like the grinning child intentionally losing at Operation just to hear the sound of the buzz.

The exquisite melodiousness of "If I Could" was intensely countered with the ardent thump of Ghosts of the Forest's "About to Run" before the scene came full circle back into the wide-ranging second half of "Terrapin Station." A standing ovation greeted Bowling as she stood from her bench beaming in gratitude. A loving encore of "Waste" wrapped up the recital, with the unsung words "Come waste your time with me" an ironic thought, since this warm autumn evening could scarcely have been better spent than sharing cherished sounds with like-minded souls. It's easy to picture Robert Hunter smiling down on these proceedings and the love shared here tonight. "Let there be songs to fill the air."

- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Justin Barnett