Pigeons Playing Ping Pong is a band that jams from Baltimore, Maryland.
Its guitarist and lead singer, Greg Ormont, plays in pajama pants, the band has its own music festival (headily branded Domefest), song and album titles are indiscriminately irreverent (“Pizzaz,” “High as Five” “Scwanthem”), and, oh yeah, the Pigeons deliver 30-minute jams and three-hour shows.
Its music and mood are about as subtle and reserved as a tie-dyed rocket ship blasting into space on a vapor wave of disco balls and glitter. That works just fine for Ormont, Jeremy Schon (guitar), Ben Carrey (bass) and Alex Petropulos (drums), whose mission is to be as explosively fun as possible.
“We try and give that escape,” Petropulos said. It’s that good-vibes-and-good-times ethos that fans — collectively known as The Flock — have come to know, love and expect from this band: don’t take yourself too seriously, always take the music seriously, but don’t take it TOO seriously because this is party music.
Let’s not be mistaken: the band has got some serious chops. Petropulos, for example, started playing shows with his brother when he was just 9 years old and his brother was 11. With the help of his dad he was tutored and mentored by percussion extraordinaires Jeff Sipe and Dave DiCenso and spent a lot of time playing different kinds of shows in New York City after college. Petropulos joined the band in 2015 and quickly found out that he was dealing with a whole new beast.
They’ve got (many) styles
“I’m an ADD drummer. One day I’m working on my gospel chops and the next I’m working on Brazilian rhythms. I love playing all styles. On the surface one could say Pigeons is a lot of dance beats, four-on-the-floor, not the most difficult playing.
“But it is different, it’s a whole different style, especially with the improv side of things. When I first joined, I was playing a lot of jam. More was the endurance factor, I’d never played three-hour shows, heavy improv, not a lot of breaks, 30-minute jams. At home you are practicing them, but in a live situation when the adrenaline is pumping you are like, ‘oh damn, these guys get at it,’ ” he said.
One of the hallmarks of jam bands is the wide breadth of styles they can encompass. Part of the appeal of a band like Phish is that it has never focused on being great at any one style, but rather pretty solid in range of musical motifs. Pigeons is no different in that sense, as they will get after anything that is going to make your body move.
They are not the best funk band, nor electro band, nor fusion band, nor disco band. But they are one of the best bands out there that can weave all those styles together in one night of music, maybe even one song. Playing close to 200 shows a year, they’ll try and insert any kind of rhythm or texture to keep things fresh and moving, for both themselves and the audience.
“OK, we are going to do a disco-dance groove for a section. Yeah, OK that might be the structure but how do you make each one unique and individual? The next time we go into that section I might do an Afrobeat rhythm or a shuffle. Since we have so many different jam sections, I treat them differently,” Petropulos said.
That everything-and-the-kitchen-sink musicality has served Pigeons well over the years, with 2020’s album “Presto” being the band’s most cohesive and accomplished offering to date. Like just about everything the band does, it is exuberant and full of life, epitomized in the soaring chorus of jam vessel “Sail On,” the sunny bounce of “Dawn A New Day,” and “Fortress,” which takes on the same south-of-the-border cheerfulness as String Cheese Incident’s “San Jose.”
Something for everyone
For those looking for face-melting gymnastics in service of the groove, they can set their dials to “Avalanche” and “Skipjack.” The songs are free enough to keep longtime fans satisfied with jams, while focused enough to grab the attention of new listeners who might not be ready for a 10-minute guitar solo right off the bat. The ability to give all listeners in The Flock something to appreciate is probably “Presto’s” most enduring quality.
“While every album has gone great, I think we really settled in on this album as far as what we knew what we could accomplish in different parts and how efficient we had to be. We have a better gauge on if we did this, what would it entail? In the studio you can sometimes want to add something and not realize it could take hours and money to accomplish. We are a lot more focused and dialed in. We knew what we wanted. I really like this set of songs, I think it is a good composed album,” Petropulos said.
Always looking for someone to shake their tailfeather with, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are touring parts of this year with another feathery, upstart jam band, Goose. Petropulos praised the group’s musicianship and companionship and was excited for what kind of hijinks Goose will bring on tour.
“We’re Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan in “Night of the Roxbury.” You may think we are joking around but we mean business,” he said.
At the end of the day, these birds of a feather know their success hinges on one simple thing, which is connecting with its fans live. “We try and put every show on a platform. We understand we are big music fans and there are bands we are hardcore fans of, who we might only get one chance to see. Every fan deserves that equal energy. If we have three hours we are going to push it as hard as we can,” the drummer said.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong has been doing that from the beginning, it’s doing it now, and it’ will do it until the end. That person-to-person, moment-to-moment connection is the essence of all successful jam bands and it is embroidered into the fabric of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.
— Garrett Bethmann, February 2020 for Tahoe Onstage
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong Opener: Karina Rykman When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 15 Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room Tickets: $27.50 in advance or $32 on the day of the show Where else: High Sierra Music Festival, June 30-July 3