In the grand tradition of the Grateful Dead who inspired her, classical pianist Holly Bowling stretches “Dark Star” to nearly 30 minutes to close Better Left Unsung.
Stuffed with adventurous performances such as this, Better Left Unsung is a crowdfunded, two-CD set of Grateful Dead music recast as classical piano pieces, and follows Bowling’s debut, Distillation of a Dream: The Music of Phish Reimagined for Solo Piano. The album features Bowling playing precise arrangements that sound improvised and proves her merit as an artist to watch (and listen to).
Bowling drew the album’s 13 songs from the Dead’s 1960s and ’70s catalog, focusing on ballads such as “China Doll” and numbers that favored the band’s penchant for jazzy detours (”Slipknot!”) and/or lengthy improvisations (”The Other One”). Highlights include “Cassidy,” “Bird Song,” “Crazy Fingers” and “Row Jimmy,” but there’s not a dud in the entire set.
This is a stupendous album, and Bowling, much like Leo Kottke with his guitar, manages to make her piano sound like multiple instruments. It would have been fun to hear what Bowling would have come up with had she cast a wider net and dipped her supple fingers into some of the Dead’s other styles and eras on songs such as “Mr. Charlie,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Throwing Stones,” “Blow Away” or even much-maligned tracks like “Wave to the Wind” and “Day Job.” Still, it’s hard to argue with the pianist’s decisions when the results sound as sweet as these do. And when she conjures the ghost of Keith Godchaux on her arrangement of the Dead’s June 18, 1974, performance of “Eyes of the World,” those eyes are most definitely smiling.