The first time I heard the San Francisco-based solo pianist Holly Bowling was when I got dragged to a dark, high-ceilinged college bar in a Philadelphia suburb for what I thought was another jam band-filled night of Grateful Dead and Phish song. What I got was something dramatic, spacious, noble and soulful—a mesmerizing performance that borrowed from the Dead’s own Bruce Hornsby in its Southern pastoralism, as well as the eerie complexity of Lennie Tristano. The second time I heard Bowling (of my own accord) at that same bar, her portrayals of Dead songs were drastically different; only her senses of majesty and playfulness remained the same.
Hearing Bowling’s third studio album, Seeking All That’s Still Unsung—like her sophomore recording, Better Left Unsung, composed solely of Grateful Dead material—my initial feeling hasn’t changed. The Grateful Dead’s rootsy psychedelia and wonky jazz elasticity are Bowling’s simmering resting place, and when she’s propelled to boil, she improvises elegantly. Her piano reveries elevate the hallucinatory muskiness of Garcia, Weir & Co., turning it into something heavenly and outré. The breathy, stretched-out “St. Stephen” and the prancing, percussive “The Eleven” continue to marry the grassy Virginian hamminess of Hornsby to Tristano’s menacingly kaleidoscopic tones. Her “China Cat Sunflower,” at first slow, cautious and serene, bursts, then becomes ardent and rapid-firing.
The silent-filmic “Lost Sailor” and the phosphorescent “Sage and Spirit,” on the other hand, retain the humble twilight tone of their originals (the latter a particular favorite of the author’s from 1975’s Blues for Allah), a familiarity that will bring a smile to any Deadhead with a brain cell. No matter how close Bowling sticks to the script, or how far she strays from it, her third album’s long strange trip remains magical and intellectually stirring.