Holly Bowling: A Mesmerizing, Magical Hour at North Beach Music Festival

We will be publishing our review of North Beach Music Festival shortly, but the solo set by Holly Bowling on Saturday, December 11, was so important, so compelling, so moving, that I need to write about it at length.

Most of us hear a set of music that seems, in the moment, as good as it gets. Regularly, perhaps. This was one of those. And I know I was not alone. With tears streaming down my face, I found the similarly stained Lee Rissin, Stefano LaCava, and others. We all compared notes. “If I had to leave RIGHT NOW, I would go happily.” And that was after: “They might as well shut the festival down now. Won’t get better than that.”

Holly Bowling. 📷: North Beach Music Festival / slightly skewed photography

Perhaps you are familiar with Keith Jarrett, one of the greatest and most important American jazz pianists. His career began with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, played with Miles Davis as the electric era began, then formed his own quartet, and later played in various trios and other combos.  

Atop those accomplishments were his recordings as a solo pianist, beginning with album Facing You and then Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne, The Köln Concert, and more. Jarrett would sit at the grand piano, get in the zone, and play. And play. Until he felt like stopping.

Holly Bowling. 📷: North Beach Music Festival / slightly skewed photography

That was Holly Bowling. I’ve seen her play in numerous settings, including in The Atrium on Jam Cruise, where everybody was talking and not enough were listening. This was different, very different. This was a gathering of true fans, all of us intent on hearing. And the sound engineers had her dialed in absolutely perfectly.

Mesmerizing. Magical. Watching Bowling bent over the keyboard, attacking it, reminding us the piano IS a percussion instrument, was watching an artistic master at work. Honestly, it didn’t matter if you were unaware of her penchant for the music of The Grateful Dead and Phish, although most who were delighted when she opened with “China Cat Sunflower.” Bowling works in and around the structure of each song, improvising, vamping, creating, and honoring as she goes.

Holly Bowling. 📷: North Beach Music Festival / slightly skewed photography

Eventually, “China Cat Sunflower” morphed — slowly — into “Divided Sky.” More recognition from the crowd. More joy. When that tune ended, she acknowledged the crowd, thanking us, and we returned the favor. “It’s Ice” was up next, followed by a brief pause before Bowling headed into “Althea.” There was plenty of dancing, twirling, heads nodding, and smiles for miles as “Althea” finally yielded — naturally — to “I Know You Rider,” which contained numerous “China Cat Sunflower” teases. The aforementioned Rissin was sure he heard “Morning Dew” in there; With Bowling, that’s more than probable.

I had forgotten that Bowling likes to reach inside the piano to play on the strings, something Jarrett made famous in 1966 with Lloyd at Monterey. It struck me how much Bowling and Jarrett were alike all set, but when she stood up to play the strings in the transition from “Althea” to “IKYR,” that cemented the thought for me.

The music was so moving, and the tears that had been welling released themselves. When there are tears of joy, you let them out. That was a righteous hour at temple/church, and we all say AMEN.

[HOLLY: China Cat Sunflower > Divided Sky, It’s Ice, Althea > I Know You Rider*]  *w/ China cat teases

Holly Bowling. 📷: North Beach Music Festival / slightly skewed photography


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