Photo credit: Jeffrey Bowling

On this, her first appearance in Los Angeles, a delighted Holly Bowling sold-out her Thursday night show at the mid-city performance space MiMoDa on January 26. The solo pianist entered wearing a baseball cap and ear-to-ear smile, took her seat, and proceeded to dazzle with two sets of a repertoire focused nearly exclusively on the subjects of her first two albums; Phish and the Grateful Dead. Much like a concert of those two iconic bands, it was an unleashed second set that had the capacity crowd dazed and amazed.

A subdued “Horse” into “Silent in the Morning” started the evening, with Bowling noting the cascading build of the latter, punctuating the powerful finishing chords and trickling coda. She followed that with a mid-tempo take on the Dead’s “Row Jimmy,” before returning to Phish, and a stirring and dynamic “Horn.” Perhaps in a preview of what was to come, Bowling next used “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” as a vehicle for extended improvisation and segues, sliding naturally into the Dead’s “Cassidy.” Alternating between the songs, she utilized melodic themes as transition points, dipping back and forth, before concluding to boisterous approval from her audience. With a beaming endorsement of a 1974 Grateful Dead show in Louisville as introduction, Bowling then tackled “Eyes of the World” from that ’74 concert, dovetailing into a delicate and closing “China Doll.”

After a very brief intermission, Bowling returned with a stunner: An hour-long, continuous and contiguous piece, utilizing “The Other One” as a recurring theme, that touched down in no less than four other segments including “Dark Star,” Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” “Roggae,” and “Character Zero.” Her fingers never leaving the piano, at times she reached inside her instrument, pounding with a mallet or plucking a melody line, for a feat of musical, physical, and creative wonder that was met with a sustained standing ovation. She ducked away for a moment, then came back for an encore of Phish’s “Waste.”

With what started as the classically-trained musician’s desire to connect her world to her adoration for the music of Phish has become something greater than tribute. It has evolved into a thesis of sorts on the musical flexibility of that band, and its forerunner in the Grateful Dead. This isn’t homage as much as it is a study, a recitation on the particular qualities of songwriting in those respective two groups, and how that structure then influences their improvisations. By her choices in both form and freedom, Holly Bowling not only illuminates the beauty of this music, but also demonstrates her incredible skill, discerning ear, and an obvious joy in execution and expression.