Having established her reputation through live performances, it’s somewhat surprising Live At The Old Church is Holly Bowling’s first official concert release (though there have been more than a few soundboards made available on-line). But hearing this double CD from one night on stage in Portland, Oregon last September, it’s quite clear how she has honed her self-styled ‘re-imagining’ approach from the studio albums Distillation of A Dream and Better Left Unsung.
Over the course of this nearly two and a half hours, Bowling delves deeply into the oeuvre of Phish and the Grateful Dead on the grand piano, courageously navigating numerous segues from those respective bands, such as “Scents and Subtle Sounds” into “Saint of Circumstance.” In that interval, as with others here, it is well-nigh impossible to tell where the structure of the composition leaves off and the improvisation begins. And, as is also the case with the best jazz, Bowling embellishes the melodies and rhythms of “Slipknot!”>”Franklin’s Tower.” with faultless transitions.
In a testament to her deep familiarity with material like “Mountains in the Mist” and “Piper.” Holly proceeds directly from the structures of the compositions into further embroideries of the songs’ individual elements. Meanwhile, the infectious quality is undeniable within the repeated passages based of “Theme From The Bottom,” so it’s a tribute to the self-restraint of this crowd that (mostly) holds its rowdy response til the end of numbers like “My Friend My Friend:” Bowling’s admirably self-effacing demeanor no doubt precludes interruptions (about which she laughingly comments at one point).
It’s a measure of the woman’s great skill as an interpreter that she knows when and how to play it straight. So, while “Brokedown Palace” might be an all-too obvious choice for a closing number, Holly manages to turn its very predictability choice to her advantage: she lingers over the chords to elicit the very poignant quality Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter envisioned for their touching ballad, but also extracts the forward-thinking air within the words and music. Still, Bowling’s never too cerebral for her own good, often throwing herself into her playing with some readily-discernible abandon, as during the closing interval on the first disc involving the aforementioned Bob Weir/John Perry Barlow number.
Like the opening of “Lost Sailor,” this is enchanting stuff rendered all the more so by the recording of Darren Oberg and subsequent mixing/mastering by Gabriel Shepard and John Schimpf. The sound of the instrument alternately sparkles and glows, the audio corollary of the striking visual image in Jeffery Bowling’s photograph on the front cover: the woman is a deceptively diminutive figure as pictured in this imposing hall where the bravery she employs in such solo performances—remarkable demonstrations of physical stamina if nothing else—almost directly equates to the sense of play she maintains in otherwise rigorous musicianship.
Still, what’s contained on Live At The Old Church doesn’t exactly sound easy. Nevertheless, the fluid technique so readily apparent in “Dark Star”>”Let It Grow” does insure this work is accessible to music lovers who may not be familiar with the source material (but may indeed be more than curious by the time they are done listening). It’s a rare musician who can inspire both directly and indirectly as Holly Bowling does here.