One Fan’s Experience Sitting in with Marco Benevento

Fans love to meet their musical idols, whether backstage, walking down the street, or just outside a venue. The experience is hard to come by but when it happens, it’s like a dream come true. But what happens when you meet a musician you are a huge fan of, possess a solid degree of musical talent yourself, and you are invited to play music with them, live on stage? Quite possibly the best night ever begins to unfold. Holly Bowling, a Suzuki Piano teacher from San Francisco had the unique, once in a lifetime experience when she sit-in with Marco Benevento on December 1st at The Chapel.

And then it happened a second time later that month.

Pete Mason: Let’s start with the basics: you’re the mystery guest who sat in with Marco not just on December 30th at the Highline Ballroom, but also in San Francisco on December 1st at The Chapel. Who are you exactly?

Holly Bowling: I live in San Francisco and teach Suzuki Piano. Really, I’m just a girl with a piano and a dream. And a unicorn outfit… but I don’t usually talk about that. I like long walks on the beach at sunset and the Tahoe Tweezer. Actually, I can take or leave the long walks on the beach at sunset. I’ve played piano since I was five. I’m classically trained but play all kinds of different stuff. I teach piano lessons for a living, mostly to kids. When I’m not doing that, I see a lot of live music. A LOT of live music.

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photo by Matty J

PM: What is your experience in playing piano?

HB: I played classical piano all the way through school growing up. It was simultaneously a really amazing thing as well as kind of a stressful competitive thing that I sort of stepped away from for a while. It’s a really intense scene. I came back to it for a while and majored in classical piano in college, and I’m really glad I did. But I really enjoy more freeform styles of music. And although you can lose yourself in classical music for sure, there’s something really cool about losing yourself in music that’s being created in the moment – whether you’re the performer or a member of an audience who are all experiencing the same thing.

PM: What draws you to music?

HB: What draws me to music is something I could talk about for hours but it’s the same things that draw everyone to it. It’s a form of expression, a way of conveying emotions to others or of experiencing someone else’s emotions. And it’s transportive; you can lose yourself in and it carries you somewhere, maybe someplace you remember, maybe someplace you’ve never been, whether you’re playing a Beethoven sonata or you’re in the crowd at a Phish show.

It’s elation, it’s despair, it’s contentment, it’s anticipation, it’s release… I mean it’s everything really. Also there’s an element of music that’s like a beautiful complex puzzle, with repeating patterns and cycles that go in and out of phase and mathematical ratios and perfect structure and order and also breaking all of that structure and order apart. Figuring out a new piece of music when you’re unfamiliar with it is fun that way. It’s a brand new puzzle to unlock and understand.

Also, music is the place in my life where I feel like I’m best able to 100% live in the exact moment I’m in and appreciate it fully. I’m right here for an instant and nowhere else. That’s increasingly hard to find, and hard to get to. It’s a pretty awesome feeling.

PM: Beyond your experience as a piano player, what draws you towards pianists in particular?

HB: On most instruments, you get to play one note at a time. Even on the guitar, where you can play chords, you still pretty much have to choose melody or chords, not both at once. There are amazing jazz players out there that can throw crazy harmonies underneath the melody as they improvise but for the most part, most instruments are one note only. The piano opens up all kinds of possibilities. But really I think i’m mostly drawn to it because I play it.

PM: What led to the sit-in with Marco Benevento in San Francisco?

HB: I went to a show on December 1st at a one of my favorite small venues in San Francisco called The Chapel. It was a benefit for a really fantastic nonprofit called Bread and Roses (if you haven’t heard of them, check them out – they bring live music to people who can’t go out and see it cause they’re stuck in the hospital, etc). Marco was playing with with the guys from Tea Leaf Green. I almost didn’t go, all my friends flaked and it was a sunday night. I decided to go at the last minute because I rarely miss a Marco show in San Francisco and I was excited to see him play with Reed (Mathis) again.

During the show, someone reached up and hit one of the keys on Marco’s piano. Somehow it became a running joke between Marco and the crowd that for a one dollar donation to Bread and Roses you could reach up and touch the top end of his piano. So all kinds of people were handing Marco singles and playing a note. Actually they were handing him small bills for all kinds of things… a group of people handed him a pile of singles to play happy birthday to their friend. He played “Hava Nagila” for everyone celebrating Hanukkah. So it was definitely a night of shenanigans and banter.

He kept asking the crowd “Does anyone else want to pay a dollar to touch the top end of the piano?” throughout the night and I’m thinking to myself, “Hell yeah I want to touch Marco’s piano!” But if I’m gonna touch it I wanna do more than just play a note… So I figured I’d go over there, hand him $2, and reach up to the top end of the piano and play the opening notes to “Atari”, because its my favorite Marco song and I wanted him to play it. $2 seemed fair… $1 for a note, double the rate for a handful of notes and a request.

I went over to hand Marco my $2 but I realized I couldn’t reach the piano over the monitors and all. So I handed him my two bucks and just climbed onstage. He was really cool about it and thankfully no one tackled me or threw me offstage or anything. He made room for me on the bench and offered for me to sit down next to him. Who turns that down? Not me! So we’re sitting at the piano next to each other and Marco starts playing “Heart and Soul”, that song everyone plays when they’re a kid, whether they know how to play or not, and I just turn to him and say “Uh-uh. Can I pick?”, and he stops, and I start playing the opening notes of “Atari”.

At this point I’m sure I have the biggest smile on my face and can’t be much happier because I AM SITTING NEXT TO MARCO BENEVENTO who is one of my favorite musicians and I am PLAYING MY FAVORITE MARCO SONG, but then Marco starts playing the bassline on the bottom end of the piano, so now we’re playing a duet. We played the whole song together, we high-fived, I gave Marco a hug, he tried to give me the pile of small bills that was on top of the piano from all the shenanigans earlier. I climbed off-stage and Marco kicked over his piano bench, said “This show is OVER” and walked offstage.

Here’s the crazy thing: I didn’t know a single person there. All my friends bailed last minute, and (my husband) Jeffery was in Los Angeles for work – I had literally dropped him off at SFO right before the show.

So this crazy thing happened, and no one I knew was there to even witness it. Luckily people in the crowd took video and sent it to me afterwards, which was awesome, because otherwise I think would’ve tried to tell my friends “Yeah I totally just climbed onstage and sat in with Marco tonight” and I think “suuuuuuuure you did” would’ve been their response.

On December 30th, Holly and friends attended the Phish show at Madison Square Garden, then went to the Highline Ballroom afterwards for the Marco Benevento post-show. 

PM: What led to the sit-in at the Highline Ballroom?

HB: It’s post-Phish and my whole crew is at the Highline up in the balcony, and they’ve all been giving me shit the whole week about how I have to get up onstage and play with Marco again. Obviously they haven’t let it go by the time we get to the Highline. So the night goes on and the show starts to get weird like Marco shows always do (and I mean that in the best way… I blame the tiger mask) and it’s getting late,  past 2 am. I figure if I’m gonna go for it this is the time. So I make my way up to the stage and between songs, I yell “Hey Marco, is it still a dollar to play the piano?” and hold up a single. He says “Yeah, it’s still a dollar! come on up here!”

So I got to play “Atari” with Marco again, but this time with Dave and Andy! Awesome. This time it was on a different piano, which was interesting because it only had maybe 6 octaves on it, so there was much less room to play around, especially with two people on it. I couldn’t believe I got to play with Marco… TWICE. I was pretty on top of the world.

The show continues and Marco does a cover of “Benny and the Jets”; it’s mostly instrumental but he usually sings the high “Benny! Benny! Benny and the Jets” part towards the end, except this time he sings “Holly… Holly… Holly is the best!” I seriously lost it. I’m like “Am I hearing this right? What is he saying?! I think that emboldened me a little to go back down there during the encore and see if I could play one more song with him. I definitely wanted to respect his show and not mess anything up but I figured he seemed like he was having fun with it during “Atari” so why not ask? I mean, the worst he could do is say no, which would’ve been totally fine. But I’m glad he said yes.

During the encore I went to the bar and bought Marco a beer. An encore, actually. I handed it to him, along with my buddy’s ridiculous neon green RAGE hat. I really wanted to see Marco wear the rage hat, it’s kind of a legendary. We played the encore together as well. Marco threw in some Phish teases as we were trading phrases at the end which was awesome. I teased “Tweeprise” and we jammed on that for a minute and then Marco brought it back to “Twin Killers”.

Epic Night.