Acoustic Explorations of the Grateful Dead with Holly Bowling

Kelley Lauginiger on June 1, 2018

Tonight, June 1, guitarist Tom Hamilton and pianist Holly Bowling will take us on a journey through acoustic explorations of the Grateful Dead at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. The two musicians, who crossed paths over the years at festivals and on the same touring circuits, found they loved jamming together and recently 
decided to form their new band, Ghost Light, playing their first shows under that moniker earlier this year.

Tonight’s show, which will see just Bowling and Hamilton sharing the stage for a night of intimate, experimental Grateful Dead tunes, will be “absolutely separate from that new project,” Bowling says. “It’s its own thing; 100 percent acoustic Dead.” Both artists are well-acquainted with the music, with Hamilton’s work in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Bowling’s solo piano interpretations of the Dead that made up her 2016 album
Better Left Unsung, and they teamed up for an expansive “Eyes of the World” last October in Pennsylvania. Here, Bowling takes time before the show to share some influential anecdotes from Phil Lesh, discuss the rich history of the Dead at The Cap and add teasers about what to expect at tonight’s show.

You and Tom have both collaborated and played with original members of the Grateful Dead many times over the past few years. Has that impacted the way you play and improvise the music of the Dead?

You know, I’m sure it has. Pinning down each thing might be hard, but there’s definitely little things you pick up here and there. Even an anecdote. Phil [Lesh] will occasionally mention a particular phrase, or some sort of imagery about a song, and that kind of thing will stay with you. Then, I’ll think about that every time I play it.

But the biggest thing is probably risk-taking, being willing to let the improvisation spin out into the unknown a bit, and not necessarily have an idea of where it’s gonna go. That’s an aesthetic that wasn’t new to me, but playing with them definitely reinforces that.

Can you speak of any anecdotes from Phil that have stuck with you over time?

One time he was talking about how a particular phrase should kind of take a shape and what shape it should have, and how it should just fall through the music. He described it as “a string of pearls.” It’s little things like that that make you think about how you want to play each note in particular.

But like I said, the big thing is the risk-taking. Sometimes when we play, it gets weird. [
Laughs.] I often find myself wondering, “How are we gonna get out of this? How are we gonna get back? What are we gonna get back to?” And I think those are some of the most fun moments playing together; when you realize they don’t have a plan either. That the whole point is to not have a plan. That’s when the good stuff happens, you know?

It’s funny to hear you say that, because I think that there’s this idea—from many people in a given audience—that musicians on stage do have a master plan. If you don’t, it’s kind of fun to think that nobody knows what’s going on.

Laughs.] Right, it’s fun that way. But this of course varies depending on the setting and if there is a setlist or not—what kind of show it is. Sometimes, you can also veer completely from what the plan started out as, if there even was one to begin with.

So true. And who better to exemplify that ideology than the Dead. To that same point, are you going to be recreating specific versions of songs at The Cap, or a particular show?

I don’t think we’ll be recreating anything. That’s a concept I’ve really enjoyed exploring on solo piano, but that’s never been what Tom and I have done together. Here’s the best way that I can describe what our intent is for The Cap—or, I should say, I can speak to my own intent, but I think Tom will feel the same way: This is not gonna be a show where it’s like, “Oh, cool, we’re just gonna play all the songs and fit in as many as we can and have it be an acoustic-sing-along hour.” That’s not the thing here.

I want to take the music really far out there, speaking in terms of improvisation. At the same time, we want to take it really far inward, which is something that I feel like acoustic instruments really lend themselves to. And in that quieter setting, where there is all this space, you can hear the slightest change of how you play a note or shape a phrase. You can hear every nuance. You don’t hear them in a louder, bigger-band setting. And that’s something that’s really cool about acoustic. Just because it’s acoustic, it’s not going to be a greatest hits thing.

Both Tom and I both obviously really enjoy improvising and the risk-taking unknown in that. That’s really what brought us together as players, so that’s the intent with this show as well. There’s also something—I’m trying to think of the right word here. There is a flexibility, or a nimbleness, when there’s less people performing. The fewer players you have on stage, the easier it is to make a sudden, unexpected left turn out into a direction where no one expected things to go. And sometimes that works with a bigger ensemble too, but it’s like, the bigger vehicle you’re driving, the earlier you have to signal your turn.

That’s what’s cool with two people; you can move really quickly and make unexpected changes, and there’s the freedom and the light-footedness to do that. The potential for interesting improvisation in an acoustic setting is something that doesn’t happen very often. So, I’m really excited for this. It’s gonna be something really different.

I noticed the seating for this show is ten rows of reserved seating in the orchestra area, with the rest of the floor as GA/standing, which isn’t a common setup that I’ve seen at The Cap.

Yeah, we wanted to give people the opportunity to sit and really have a listening-room type of experience, if they wanted. It’s something I try to create at my solo shows. But at the same time, we wanted people to have the freedom to move around, or dance, or do whatever. The intent wasn’t to dictate how people
should enjoy the show, but instead to give the option and say, “This is music you really want to take in and focus in on. This is available if you want to take that ride.”

And it’s just you and Tom on stage?

Yup! Just me, the piano, Tom and an acoustic guitar.

That really is something special. I can’t think of a time when it was just Jerry and a piano. Did that ever happen?

I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so.

And how appropriate for this to be taking place at The Capitol Theatre. You’ve played at Garcia’s, but will this be your first time performing at The Cap?

It is my very first time playing at The Cap! I’m super excited about that. It’s funny, too, because, you know, Tom has played at The Cap a billion times. [
Laughs.] So we’re kind of coming into the room with completely opposite experiences in that regard. It’s brand-new and exciting for me, and I think it’s just like home to him, so that should be a nice duality.

Obviously, the Dead have a rich history at The Cap. Was that one of the reasons you chose The Cap as the venue for this special show?

Exactly. It’s just a super special room. We’re really excited to put this show in that setting. It’s the perfect place for this. It has a ton of history and a great vibe, and the family of people that come to shows at The Cap and that are involved with the venue are just fantastic. It’s exactly the right place to have this show.

Last time we spoke, you said it’s hard to pick a favorite era of the Dead, but that you lean towards early ’70s and, more specifically, Keith tunes. I know Pigpen was still behind the keys, but the February ’71 Dead shows at The Cap were so beautiful and historical—does anything from that run make the cut into the repertoire of your favorite Dead tunes?

Actually, my most recent jam transcription is from The Cap, in ’71! [Laughs.] It’s the “Beautiful Jam.” I did a jam transcription of that, and I’ve played it a few times, but I haven’t done it in a long time. I did it right before Better Left Unsung was released, and I just love that piece of music. I spent so long working on it and poured a lot of love and hours into it.

But, you know, it’s meant to be sandwiched between “Dark Star” and “Wharf Rat,” and when I played them, I liked knowing I didn’t have a place that I “needed to get to.” When you have a destination in mind, it shapes where you’re going to go. And “Dark Star” in particular is one of those songs where you just need to let it go where it wants to go. So, I guess I stopped playing the “Beautiful Jam” transcription that I did because it felt weird to put it anywhere else, outside the context of those two songs. But it also felt wrong to rob a song like “Dark Star” of its blank canvas status, which is just such an amazing thing.

So, great question, and the answer is yes. That piece of music is very close to my heart. I feel like I spent forever on it, then played it twice. [
Laughs.] But it was a lot of fun. And while I was learning the piece, I learned a lot. I literally picked apart every nuance and every note. And you take it with you. Any piece of music that you play or transcribe, it affects you and stays with you.