Pigeons Playing Ping Pong flocks to Charlottesville

The band gave an exciting performance with a disappointing setlist


Funk-jam band Pigeons Playing Ping Pong brought their musical wizardry to The Jefferson Theater Jan. 30.

Courtesy Justin Mierzejewski of Miz Changes Photography

To describe a jam band’s work as a form of wizardry should be held as an utmost compliment, reserved for a band that exhibits its magical faces and can play with an audience in ways that most bands cannot. A musical wizard has the ability to penetrate the minds of those in the audience and replace the brain’s power of controlling the body with music. The mind-body connection ceases to exist and the music takes over as the composer of the body’s movements. 

If you were in the crowd under the control of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at The Jefferson Theater Wednesday night and didn’t understand their wizardry, then man, you must’ve been lost in the pigeon sauce because the magic of their music took over. 

Hailing from Baltimore, the funkadelic weirdos — who coined their name in 2009 based off a transcendent experience during their Psychology 100 class at the University of Maryland — made their second stop in Virginia since their epic performance at LOCKN’ Music Festival in August. With them, they brought their self-named “Flockers,” the hippie fans that follow Pigeons around.

Constantly throwing around their bodies, the Flockers blissfully chose to lose their mind for a night of musical enchantments. It’s easy to feast upon the stories of the band’s devotees simply by eavesdropping over the crowd. Old dread-heads wearing tie-dye Grateful Dead shirts talk with young University students dawning their favorite festival hat, weighed down by colorful pins collected at various shows, each with a different story to tell about the first or last time they saw Pigeons. The murmurs turned into laughs and into screams, followed by applause when the four squabs take the stage. 

Concurrent with most jam bands, Pigeons did not play a song that lasted for less than seven minutes. They certainly draw an audience that appreciate strings being strung over songs being sung. And why wouldn’t they? When a band harvests the magic like Pigeons can, they can do whatever they want with it. No song sounds exactly like the studio version. There’s a reason people follow these bands around the world and back again. It’s possible to see them ten nights in a row and not hear the same song twice — even if the same song is played twice. And that’s not a paradox. 

Lead singer Greg Ormont came out firing on the “Bad For You” opener, smiling through the opening lyrics and screaming out the spontaneous adventure that the lyrics portray. Had it been a night where Ormont was feeling a little goofier, he may have laughed through the whole track, thus giving the song an entirely different perspective. 

Preceded by the jamarrific sing-a-longs “Melting Lights” and “King Kong” came an unexpected treat. Pigeons are no stranger to original movie scores, especially Disney hits. Wednesday night was no exception as Ormont floored the hearts and humors of all of the Jefferson’s dwellers, taking on the voice of the hilariously evil Tamatoa and singing “Shiny” from “Moana.” Pigeons made this groove their own by diving into a long jam that left Ormont and bass guitarist Ben Carrey shuffling around like crabs as lead guitarist Jeremy Schon shredded his under-the-sea guitar riff. 

The best thing that Pigeons Playing Ping Pong does is not take themselves too seriously. The band is the first to make fun of themselves, especially when they couldn’t figure out how to tune their instruments for a solid five minutes. Greg was consistently making hysterical faces while singing and sticking out his Gene Simmons length tongue in between verses. It’s impossible not to chuckle during the Flocker favorite “Time to Ride.” Greg talks so absurdly fast during it and in such a high pitch that it magically produces a riotous sensation that just makes you want to be weird as well. 

Before going into the final track — another hilarious melody, “F.U.” — the band produced their magic to the extreme. They went from 11:04 p.m. until 11:37 p.m. without saying a word. Just jamming. Thirty-three minutes of a “trance-and-dance” as one of the Flockers in the crowd would say. 

They ended the show around midnight with just one encore, “Fox and Toad.” As much fun as the show was, it was disappointing. Yeah, the guys were on and their magic was contagious, but they only played 14 songs, considerably less than all other non-festival shows. The show was less than three hours, did not go past midnight, only consisted of one set  — an extreme rarity in the jam-band world — and had none of the memorable rock ‘n’ roll covers Pigeons is usually known for. They covered “Cities” by the Talking Heads, which isn’t that great of a song, especially compared to previous setlists when they played “Eyes of the World,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Paint it Black” and “Pinball Wizard.”. It’s one thing to have a bad night — even the iconic Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia had nights where he wasn’t at his best — but it felt like the Pigeons were on their game then left the stage just when things were getting hot. 

So yes, the band was great. They were wizards up there and rocked out. But for as great as they could’ve been, the sold-out Charlottesville crowd was cheated.

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