Fit for a Queen: Holly Bowling Closes Massry Schedule with a Thriller

A couple years ago, few knew of Holly Bowling. The unassuming Phish fan — a classically trained pianist with a love of improvisational music — was just going about her life. And that life would be changed on July 31, 2013, when Phish dropped a 37-minute “Tweezer” opus in Lake Tahoe.

How are the two connected? Well, Bowling decided to transcribe the improvised jam note-for-note and arrange it for the piano. Her YouTube video has been viewed more than 65,000 times, and spawned her album Distillation of a Dream, which is full of Phish songs reimagined for the piano.

Fast forward to the present, and Bowling has some time under her belt on the road, taking her act of just herself and a piano across the country. On May 12, Bowling headlined the Massry Center for the Arts on the College of Saint Rose campus in Albany, becoming the first person ever to perform at the venue twice in one season. (Side note: This is the second time in a week I was lucky enough to see her live. She played a benefit at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theater ahead of Twiddle’s headlining show last Saturday.)

To a crowd of enthusiasts in a space with room to move, Bowling jumped right into Phish’s “Pebbles and Marbles,” with her form-fitting black dress a near perfect compliment to St. Rose’s black baby grand piano. With an iPad affixed inches from her eyes, Bowling locked in with the focus of a baseball player at bat down by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Aside from the lights, which were provided by Buffalo’s Craig Freudenthal, and the songs, Bowling’s show couldn’t be any more different than what Phish does dozens of times each year. At one point, the green lights providing the backdrop appeared to look like the outside of Hampton Coliseum, a place Phish fans know well.

“Train Song” was next, before Bowling explained that recently, she’s been transcribing Grateful Dead songs. On that note began my all-time favorite song ever written by anyone, the Phil Lesh-penned “Unbroken Chain.” “Theme From the Bottom,” a passionate “Wharf Rat,” “Roggae” and June 18, 1974’s “Eyes of the World”>”China Doll” closed out the hour-long set.

The second set began with “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” from Phish’s run at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in June, 2004, which featured a prominent “Piper” tease. To everyone’s delight, Bowling ripped into the entire “Terrapin Station” suite, which took us to the close of the second set. “Slave to the Traffic Light” was a fitting encore to a wonderfully unique experience.

But wait — Bowling wasn’t done. Just after announcing she’s working on a new album of Grateful Dead transcriptions, Bowling played a second encore of Phish’s “Taste,” a regular in her setlist. The crowd erupted in applause and Bowling flashed her overly thankful smile, sending everyone out the door in baited exhilaration.

If you get the opportunity to see Bowling, you should not pass it up. Phish fans tend to be supremely passionate about their band, but Bowling has taken that fanaticism to another level with her performances and dedication.