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Holly Bowling: Better Left Unsung

Doug Collette By

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As wry as is the implication of its title, Holly Bowling's double album of Grateful Dead material, Better Left Unsung, is utterly absorbing. These thirteen wholly instrumental, solo piano renditions of material spanning the spectrum of the iconic San Francisco band's songbook illuminate why the songs are so memorable on their own terms as well as fodder for inspired improvisation.

Perhaps it's Holly Bowling's her background as a classically trained pianist, but she never dumbs down her playing. In fact, her musicianship is so evocative that a listener familiar with numbers like "Cassidy" or "China Doll" may find the lyrics come to mind. Similarly, those less intimate with the gorgeous melody of "Stella Blue" or the multiple changes of "Terrapin Station (Suite)." will quite likely be moved to seek out the words: in doing so, these curious music-lovers will find Bowling's interpretations as true to their spirit as to the melodic counterparts.

"Help On the Way" features perhaps the most dramatic opening chord sequence in the Grateful Dead discography and it doesn't sound much less arresting here, as it arises only from Bowling's fingers on the ivories, than as generated by a full ensemble. Along with the fact she's been playing since the age of five, her intimate knowledge of such numbers as "Wharf Rat" or "Row Jimmy." allows the pianist to elicit nuances from the progressions only the authors' might've heard. Yet even on mere riffs like that of "Bird Song," she imbues her performance with the authority necessary to maintain the distinction of its structure.

As with the 2013 live Phish performance of "Tweezer" that launched this concept of Bowling's-initially in the form of Distillation of a Dream: The Music of Phish Reimagined For Solo Piano(Royal Potato Family, 2015), the "Eyes of the World" included on Better Left Unsung is a transcription of her favorite performance of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter collaboration from Louisville's Freedom Hall in 1974. Not surprisingly, this track contains the same openness to serendipity as the well-chosen concluding cut "Dark Star" and, like any great improvisational musician, Holly Bowling follows songs like "Unbroken Chain" just literally enough.

Sequenced like a two-set concert, in which the comparatively shorter takes precede more lengthy pieces, Better Left Unsung shouldn't be dismissed as a mere novelty in the expansive lore of the Grateful Dead. On the contrary, the album's title is an exercise in undue modesty on Holly Bowling's part.

Track Listing: CD 1: Help On The Way > Slipnot!; Franklin's Tower; Cassidy; Bird Song; Wharf Rat; Unbroken Chain; Crazy Fingers; Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One; Row Jimmy. CD 2: Terrapin Station (Suite); Eyes Of The World (6/18/74 Louisville, KY); China Doll; Dark Star.

Personnel: Holly Bowling: piano

Title: Better Left Unsung | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Royal Potato Family

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