Holly Bowling on the Lifeline of Audience-less Shows and Grateful Dead Piano Covers

When the pandemic took hold of the world and musicians across the globe went into lockdown, Holly Bowling hatched an idea for a different kind of tour. The classically-trained pianist, known for her covers of Grateful Dead and Phish tunes, scouted locations from satellite images, found a camper van, figured out how to run a remote recording setup and started mapping a route that would take in some of America’s most spectacular locations for a virtual tour unlike any other.

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“It’s something I would have never even imagined under normal circumstances,” Bowling tells American Songwriter. “After canceling show after show when the pandemic hit, I started looking for other avenues to play and did a series of streaming concerts from my living room. But after a few months, I felt like that had run its course and took a break to figure out what I wanted to do next.” She and her husband Jeffery hatched the idea for a tour of audience-less shows out in the wilderness while on a hiking trip in the Sierras at the end of June. They immediately started planning. “We were planning a venue-less tour in places we’d never been and where no one ever plays music, so there was a lot of figuring it out on the fly.”

Among the challenges of this tour, which ends on October 8th in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, is that the conditions in these locations have been wild and unpredictable, from intense wind to dust storms to relentless heat and bitter cold. “It’s not always an ideal situation to play music in, and it’s often a lot of work to even get to the remote places that offer the solitude I’m aiming for with these sessions,” says Bowling. “There’s also the practical challenge of living in a van full time. It’s just me and my husband (who is also my videographer) and our dog, but it’s very close quarters. Every square inch is packed between my keyboard, the recording and video equipment, and all the stuff to eat sleep and live in wildly varying climates for several months.”

The virtual tour began in early September at Lake Tahoe in California, then went to Yosemite National Park, the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Idaho’s epic Bruneau Canyon and the scenic Beartooth Highway that wends back and forth between Wyoming and Montana. Bowling had to drag her grand piano out to all of these places. “A big part of my sound comes from plucking the strings inside the piano, using mallets and e-bows, and drumming on the frame of the instrument, and I didn’t want to lose all that. So after a bunch of experimentation, I mounted a zither to my keyboard so I could replicate some of those techniques and still have access to a wider variety of sounds than the standard sounds you expect to come from a piano,” she says.

But the 36-year-old musician quickly learned to embrace the elements. “Some of these challenges – like the wind – have turned into definitive parts of the sound of these sessions,” she says. “At the beginning, I found myself struggling to work around the sounds the wind was dragging out of the zither beyond my control. As the tour went on, I started looking forward to those sounds that appeared unbeckoned and letting them shape the direction of the set.” The music and the setting led to some intimate conversations, and Bowling found herself enjoying the experience of playing to a place instead of an audience. “With the Living Room Sessions, I was missing that exchange of energy you get between audience and performer at a live show. With this series, “that’s been replaced by the interaction with these unbelievably beautiful and intense wild places,” she says.

Her fans were still there though, watching as she streamed the shows. With the end of the virtual tour comes Bowling’s newest release, Seeking All That’s Still Unsung, a solo piano album featuring reimagined renditions of the music of the Grateful Dead — a band whose music Bowling has loved her entire life. “I love the freedom of it and the way they valued risk-taking and emotive expression over perfection and repetition in their performance of it. I love the way it translates to the piano. And the songs are incredible,” she says. “There’s this huge catalog that spans so many styles, from the raw energy of the early stuff to the delicate haunting beauty of the Garcia/Hunter ballads to the songs that are full of compositional intrigue with odd time signatures and unexpected shifts in harmony. There’s just so much there to dig into.”

For Bowling, capturing the spirit of a classic jam band track on piano is about listening to different versions from different eras and letting them all soak in. “I’ll spend some time making sure I understand the structure of the song and write out any parts that are really complex or that need to be nailed note for note,” she says. Bowling has a knack for conveying the vocal delivery of a song into her piano playing. “That’s really important to me, so I write the lyrics in my score too – I want to hear the singer’s voice in my head with every note I play and keep that thread going even though I play them as an instrumental.”

This new album, like the Living Room sessions, which she also released during the pandemic, has helped lift her spirits. “Each one of the streams, whether from my living room or from a canyon in the middle of nowhere, was a doorway I could walk through or a window where I could see out for a while, and those moments of simultaneous escape and connection absolutely have carried me through.”

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