You might think that a young psychedelic funk-rock fusion band that formed at an East Coast university and took its name from an experiment conducted by the famous behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner would be a bunch of pretentious dickwads.
But you’d be wrong.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – whose name accurately describes Skinner’s experiment – is a laid-back group of guys with a knack for improvisational music. After some high-profile gigs – including an opening slot for the Disco Biscuits during last New Year’s Eve Phish after-party in New York City – they’re rightfully claiming a top spot as one of the best in the new generation of jam bands.
The group, which features Greg Ormont on guitar and lead vocals, Jeremy Schon on lead guitar, Ben Carrey on bass and Dan Schwartz on drums, formed at the University of Maryland in late 2007.
Ormont and Schon shared an interest in music and began jamming on acoustic guitars. It was in a psychology class that they found the phrase that would become the band’s name.
“We just saw the phrase ‘pigeons playing ping pong’ in my psychology textbook,” says Ormont. “Neither of us were psychology majors. We were just there, for some reason.”
Ormont looks and acts like Andy Samberg, if Andy Samberg fronted a jam band. He spends the whole set dancing, making goofy faces and interacting with the audience. Unlike Samberg, Ormont isn’t an actor – though when he starts up the band’s cover of “Psycho Killer,” he does manage to channel essence of the Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. (By the way, all other bands can stop covering “Psycho Killer.” The Pigeons can take it from here.) “I personally love to get in David Byrne’s mindset,” Ormont says. “I also love to play ‘Kung-Fu Fighting’ because it’s highly ridiculous.”
It’s in the realm of the ridiculous where the Pigeons soar, mixing a cover of “Under the Sea” from the Disney’s The Little Mermaid in the middle of their bouncy island-inspired/Latin flavored love song “Julia,” or opening the show with a choreographed dance routine. Jam bands often straddle the line between the comic and the cosmic. Perhaps some absurdist humor helps bring the audience back to reality after a mind-bending exploratory musical excursion.
Don’t be misled by all the silliness, though. These guys are high-level musicians and obvious students of improvisational music and the eclectic jam genre specifically. The group competently cycles through Phish-y cow-funk grooves and driving Disco Biscuits-style trance-jam anthems. Their set, which includes reggae, Latin, funk and psychedelic rock, is full of groove-based jamming, building to blissed-out peaks and dissolving into heavenly, atmospheric ambient space.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s latest album, Psychology – released this July – is a heady dose of funky psychedelic rock. It’s a 13-track barn-burning dance party. The horn-laced track “F.U.” got picked up on Reddit.com, and the video hit more than 10,000 views on YouTube.
Besides a soaring version of “Julia,” the album includes “Shwanthem” (a Disco Biscuits inspired electro-groove), “Horizon” (a jammy chillwave track) and “Melting Lights” (a rocking ode to psychedelics).
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong have a few tricks up their sleeves (wings?) for Halloween.
“We love Halloween,” Ormont says. “The entire week we’ll be playing some truly special sets, and we encourage everyone to get wacky and wear their craziest costumes and prepare for a truly unique experience.” Then the phone cut out, and the last thing I heard was “….like a wild stallion.” Whatever he was saying about the upcoming show in Harrisburg must’ve been pretty awesome.
Catch Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at the Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. (50 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg) on Wednesday, October 29. Aqueous opens. 8pm doors. 21+. $7 adv./$10 door. Click here for tickets.