Exploring the essence of the Grateful Dead‘s musical legacy on her new album, Better Left Unsung, classical pianist Holly Bowling finds fresh ways to share the spirit of the beloved band. Merging the timeless sound of piano with the music of modern masters is much trodden ground, but Bowling infuses enough of herself in each re-imagining to make the results able to stand on their own. Bowling’s choice of subject matter, music from jam band icons like the Dead, presents some unique challenges that she seems to embrace.
While there are seemingly countless cover acts remaking the music of the Dead on stages across America nightly, few are saying anything new. The Dead relied greatly on improvisation, though over the years certain patterns started to occur in live renditions, and most bands focus on that aspect of their sound. Bowling honors all eras with the same mix of imagination, love of the material and bravado that sets her apart. In her skilled hands, “Franklin’s Tower” gains a saloon worthy, barrel roll feel. “Unbroken Chain” arcs to the heavens with a swirling ascension that is practically biblical. Even the island tinged “Crazy Fingers” finds new respect as a sparse and captivating single line transformation.
Bowling isn’t one to shy away from the more elaborate pieces as well. Album exclusive versions of “Terrapin Station (Suite)” and “Dark Star” see her at her finest, both in actual playing and in the area of scoring. The heavy structures and distinct sections of those epic tracks give Bowling a prime opportunity to wed her classical sensibilities to the various moving pieces. Her strident stokes ring with authority while her deft pedal control give her an almost vibrato feel to her arsenal. That range is most useful when needing to contrast the harshness of her instrument with some of the more lilting passages of the original works.
It’s no mean feat to not just a single revered musician but an entire band whose catalog is burned into the hearts and souls of two generations of music fans. Both this album and her previous work, Distillation Of A Dream, where she tackled the works of Phish, shows that Holly Bowling is an artist without fear. That confidence seems to have set her free to chase nigh impossible dreams and make them truly worthwhile musical realities.
As the inspired tracks on Better Left Unsung show, Bowling is an artist who manages to hear the actual soul of a song while at the same time evolving it into something fresh for the next generation. With his predilection for covering the work of others himself, it is safe to say that Jerry would be proud to hear his works receiving the same reverential treatment.