One of the things that remains a constant throughout any workday at my actual 9-to-5 job is music piping into my ears via headphones. What’s funny is how my day can dictate what genre of music I’m in the mood for. If it’s a particularly stressful day and I want to ramp up my own energy to fight back on an equal footing, then it may well be the sharp staccato of punk or the electric glare of metal that is playing, whereas if it’s a calm day or a day that I wish to calm down, it’ll be more along the lines of jazz or classical music.
My tendencies to swing wildly from one genre to another have, perhaps, even colored my evolving tastes in music and bands I would have once considered passing by. Take the Grateful Dead, for instance. Here’s a band that can certainly be mellow and easygoing enough to help set the right kind of calmness for the day. But if you need to get the energy going, you can just as easily drop in any one of their live records and just feed off of the energy that goes through the entire band as it grooves for 25+ minutes on classics like “Dark Star.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to something that takes the wide sweep of possibilities that are inherent in the Grateful Dead’s songbook and apply them to a more classical music atmosphere. Holly Bowling’s Better Left Unsung is an album consisting of 13 tracks that reinterpret the Dead’s music through the filter of her nimble fingers as she charts them out in the waters of a record where the only instrument is her piano.
On the surface, you might think that limiting the songs of a band that thrived on the interplay between various parts – most importantly the lead and rhythm guitars of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir – wouldn’t work, but you’d be mistaken. There is power and subtlety in these reinterpretations that I think Garcia would have admired, as his own personal tastes seemed to range to the more subdued and authentic soul of acoustic performances. This is evidenced by the continuing live releases of the Jerry Garcia Band, where his acoustic guitar work provides vigorous reinterpretations of some of his better known electric guitar performances in their own right.
One of my favorite tracks on this album comes from one of Garcia’s solo albums (as opposed to one of the Dead’s), although the Dead performed it live many times throughout their decades of performances: “Bird Song.” It’s this lovely wistful song about having something that was beautiful that is only there for a while before it flies away. No matter how many live performances or versions I hear of that tune, none come close to the wistful simplicity of the studio recording other than Bowling’s version on this album. Maybe it’s the slight return on the melody that she offers up as the track opener before playing softly into the song proper, but it just catches my imagination in much the same way as Garcia’s playing does.
It’s a beautiful collection from a player with a lovely way of looking at and reimagining music through the lens of her instrument. I can’t recommend it enough.
Better Left Unsung will be released on December 9 via indie label Royal Potato Family.