Psychedelic jam band Pigeons Playing Ping Pong quite literally bounced onto the stage of the Regency Ballroom on Saturday, exuding contagious energy, high spirits and an overall feel-good vibe. Staying true to its whimsical name, the band fed the audience fun, improvised extensions of original songs, maintaining its drive for its second night in San Francisco.
Frontman Greg Ormont shouted the city’s name as the four members took their places onstage. Sounding like a boxing ring announcer, Ormont projected, “All the way from Baltimore, Maryland, we’re Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and we’re here to rip your f—— face off.” The band played two full sets in one night to the same audience, each made up of completely different songs.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong was formed in 2009 by lead singer Greg Ormont, guitarist Jeremy Schon, bassist Ben Carrey and former drummer, Dan Schwartz. In 2015, the group was joined by its current drummer, Alex Petropulos.
The band, which describes its music as high-energy psychedelic funk, prides itself on following in the footsteps of legendary jam bands such as Phish and the Grateful Dead. Something about the group’s sound harkens back to the 1967 Summer of Love, appealing to fans who hope to go back to the good ol’ days. This has led the band to amass a fanbase it admirably refers to as “the Flock,” and the group took its audience back in time with its packed performance on Saturday.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong began its first set of two with the happy song, “High as Five.” Listeners couldn’t help but smile in response to the grin plastered on Ormont’s face and his genuinely joyous voice. The band, after jamming out for at least seven minutes, transitioned to the gloriously funky “Bad for You.” It seemed as though the minimum requirement for a song was nothing short of 15 minutes, the band transitioning seamlessly from one jam to the next and sometimes playing nonstop for upward of 30 minutes.
But apart from the band’s music, the visuals onstage were equally pleasing. Petropulos’ bass drum was painted with a glowing depiction of the band’s name, and amid the strobing lights of the venue, it appeared to sway to the beat. Ormont also wore flowy pants covered in black and yellow penguins, an appropriate look for the free-spirited frontman’s stage presence.
About halfway through the first set, Schon’s guitar rang out with a few familiar chords, but not from a Pigeons song. The band slowly began the intro to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles, initially playing the song as it was originally written. But as a much-appreciated twist, Ormont and Schon began playing a jam version of the song, showcasing the band’s talent and versatility.
At the end of the first set, Ormont relayed back to the crowd after discussing with Schon that the band would play straight through the set break, not wanting to leave that much dead time with a clearly energized audience. Even though the band was visibly tired, it launched straight into the next jam without much hesitation and was still able to maintain its original level of intensity.
The second set proved to be similarly full of surprises, the band whipping out another cover tucked within the middle of “Whoopie,” this time playing “1999” by Prince. But the night’s highlight was when Ormont announced that two members of the opening band, Goose, would be joining Pigeons for a performance of the song “Lightning.” The six musicians onstage jammed away, enjoying themselves as much as the audience was enjoying them. “Two birds, one bill,” Ormont quipped.
And if playing for two hours straight wasn’t enough for the band, it came back to play a 30 minute encore of “Distant Time” and “Dawn a New Day.”
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong proved that it is part of a new generation of jam bands, cherishing the ability to improvise for long periods of time to a receptive, dedicated crowd. Delivering a show complete with bass solos, iconic riffs and insane drums, all complemented by high, peaking vocals, the band no doubt made its jam predecessors proud.
Highlights: “King Kong,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Lightning”
Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].