Pete Mason: As you start your east coast fall tour, you are playing a variety of venues – larger rooms such as Higher Ground in Burlington, 8×10 Club in Baltimore, Gypsy Sally’s in Washington D.C., and more intimate rooms like The Lily Pad in Cambridge, MA, and Underground Arts in Philadelphia. How do the listening experiences for the audiences compare in different environments?
Holly Bowling: The rooms I’m playing this tour definitely have a lot of variety! It’s less about size though and more about the feel of the venue. I’m playing some spots where it’s unusual to see a solo piano act – places where you’re more likely to see a full band and spend most of the night dancing – and then I’m playing some spots that are more of a mellow environment, places where you might usually see jazz or classical music.
The contrast between them is something I’m really looking forward to. They both have their strengths. Sometimes I think the setting that classical or jazz music is played in can be hard for people to get into. It can be a little restrictive, a little stifling – you can’t move around during the show and there’s a pretty strict concert etiquette. The freedom in clubs that usually play host to rock music can be really refreshing – for the audience but also for the performer. I think it encourages you to play a little looser, to take chances.
But at the same time, there’s something really special about a room full of people sitting down and intently focused on the music together like what you get in a concert hall or a quiet jazz club. No distractions, no socializing, just a really intense inner musical experience. It can be really powerful even though people don’t really express the emotions the music inspires in them as outwardly in a place like a symphony hall the way they would at a club or an arena show.
You can really get lost in the music in a different way and just get swept away. Especially with as many distractions as there are at music events these days, and in life in general, it’s pretty great to find a space to just completely immerse yourself in experiencing music for a few hours and give yourself over to that entirely. So I’m excited to be playing both types of venues on this tour. I think the contrast will be really interesting and each setting will take the music in a different direction.
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Pete Mason: Are you viewing these venues as offering a balance between rock club and jazz club?
Holly Bowling: There are definitely some venues out there that have one foot in each world and I’m always on the hunt for those. They’re few and far between but really lend themselves well to the music I’m playing. I mean it’s not really classical and its not really rock, so where do you put it? I think it can be enjoyed in a lot of different settings – and actually, pushing the boundaries and expectations of what you can do in each venue setting is something that’s really interesting to me – but the rooms that are a crossover between the two are really a great fit.
I love to see music in places where you can be comfortable and have some freedom but the focus is also 100% on the music and there aren’t a lot of distractions. It can be a delicate balance to strike but those rooms and crowds are the best. It’s where I most like to see music when I’m on the audience side, and where I like to play best too.
Pete Mason: How have you found yourself pushing the boundaries so far in your performances this year, and in what way, if at all, do you tailor your performance to setting?
Holly Bowling: This year has been interesting because it’s been kind of a whirlwind of experiences. My first album just came out a few months ago and I spent a lot of time leading up to recording it working out arrangements very carefully and doing a lot of meticulous detail work. Then I started playing shows in support of the album and it took a little while for the arrangements to settle and have a little more room to breathe. Whether it’s pushing boundaries or just allowing things to progress and evolve naturally at this point, I’ve enjoyed letting things open up more as the year has gone on. Allowing myself the freedom for improvisation during shows and even letting the arrangements stray further from where the jams usually go and letting them go off the rails a little… that’s been really fun.
Also, I’ve been playing around with segues in the setlists and a different incarnation of the “jam transcriptions” like what I did with the Tahoe Tweezer. I saw a bunch of Phish shows this summer and it was such a spectacular tour musically that, by the end, there were more memorable jams that I really wanted to study than I could possibly ever tackle if I was transcribing and arranging them all from start to finish. So I started playing around with the idea of just pulling out a peak moment from the jam – the theme that you get stuck in your head for a week and can’t stop listening to – and transcribing and arranging just that part. And then I’ve been weaving those into the setlists. It’s sort of an homage and a thanks for the music we got to enjoy this summer, and also a bit of a retrospective of some of the transcendent musical moments from this tour.
Pete Mason: Can you give a few examples of the ‘peak moment from the jam’ that you have transcribed?
Holly Bowling: Sure, here’s a story of how you know what the peak moment of a jam is. I came back from Phish’s summer tour and woke up in the middle of the night with a fragment of music stuck in my head. Clearly Phish, and clearly from a recent show, but I couldn’t place it. Couldn’t sleep. I sang the melody to my (attempting to sleep) husband and he knew it instantly and finished the phrase. The next morning (with the melody still stuck in both of our heads) we figured it out – 17:00 – 18:00 in the Mann Twist. I’ve listened to that jam a lot since then. Peak moment for sure.
Another one is the G major section of the “Down With Disease” from Colorado this year, the build from the 12 minute mark on. I mean the whole jam is great, but from 12 minutes on it just blasts off into bliss.
It’s the parts of the jams that you can sing or play a little fragment of and a good portion of Phish fans will recognize it even though it sounds nothing like the original song. I mean, it’s pretty nuts really… I really don’t know of another band where you could play 30 seconds worth of one particular live version of one of their songs, on another instrument, in a different key, several years after the fact, and people in the crowd would instantly recognize the theme. Every time I’ve teased a theme from one of Phish’s jams, people come up to me and know what it was. It’s just nuts. I think it’s the coolest thing what Phish inspires.
Pete Mason: Regarding your recent setlists – you are playing more Phish songs and transcriptions, have been interspersing a few teases and even a few Grateful Dead songs in the mix. Is this a sign of increased comfort as a performer?
Holly Bowling: Definitely. A lot of the material I was playing earlier this year was very new at the time. It’s hard to be playful and creative with something you’ve just gotten a handle on. Now that the songs I arranged for the album are old friends, I can explore new things to do with them. It gives you a more solid footing to launch into whatever else you want to do.
The Grateful Dead songs made their way into my shows by accident. I was planning on doing one show, the last show of my fall tour (in Pittsburgh) that would be Phish and Dead songs interwoven with each other, just as kind of a one-off thing. But when I started working on learning the songs, I fell in love with them and kept finding myself ending up there no matter what I was playing. And there was no reason to fight it. They’re beautiful compositions and very different from some of the more technically intense and high energy Phish songs. I like the contrast and the ebb and flow.
Pete Mason: If the songs on the album are ‘old friends’, what ‘new friends’ can fans expect to hear this fall, on Jamcruise and into 2016? Surely you’ve had your share of suggestions from fans
Holly Bowling: I like surprises so I won’t reveal much but I have been working on some new Phish arrangements that have been both challenging and rewarding. I just finished learning “It’s Ice” and it was the toughest Phish composition I’ve learned for sure. There’s a lot of different rhythmic patterns and cycles superimposed on each other which is tricky enough when you’re locking several instruments into sync together, but having them split between two hands was really tough at first! I actually ended up color-coding the score I wrote to help keep the patterns straight. My score for the middle section (the part that’s sort of percussive and dissonant and full of repeating rhythms) is full of purple notes, blue notes, green notes… that part took forever to work out but was incredibly interesting to study and analyze. And there’s definitely some other new arrangements I’ve been working on. Albany will have some debuts for sure!
I am especially excited about playing The Massry Center because it’s so different from the venues where most of us often see music. The acoustics are incredible and they have a Steinway concert grand that is going to be just amazing to play. I think they may have to pull me away from it at the end of the night! I’m actually going to play three sets at the Albany show because I’m so excited to play this music on a piano that really expresses the full range of what the instrument can do. The Tahoe Tweezer jam transcription is really meant for a piano like this – where you can unleash a dark tone from the instrument in the heavy sections but you can also find a sweet, delicate sound and create an ethereal resonance in the middle part of the jam. I can’t wait.
See Holly this fall at venues across the Northeast, kicking off with her performance at The Massry Center for the Arts on Wednesday, October 28 at 7pm.