Cleveland remains a pivotal touring stop for many bands working the East Coast and Great Lakes routes. It is city assembled by the bricks of music and art, poetry and experimentation. For a young band from, say, Baltimore, Cleveland may as well be a home away from home.
We’re talking about Pigeons Playing Ping Pong here, one of the more inventively named funk bands in a genre not exactly short on inventive names. They number four, and they hail from our blue-collar cousins on the Chesapeake Bay: Baltimore. They are here to rock your souls.
The band has taken advantage earnestly and meaningfully of the jam band scene at Beachland’s two hallowed rooms. In recent years, they’ve stopped by pretty regularly — opening for other bands on the jam circuit and holding down a headlining slot here and there. On Dec. 29 and 30, they’ll bring a two-night run to our little north shore town.
“We love Cleveland,” guitarist Greg Ormont says while driving through Baltimore on his way to band practice. “They’ve been really good to us. The fans are really fun, and they’re very supportive.”
Fans near and far are vital players in the early successes of any band. In the jam scene, this is even more true. Broadened horizons come not from licensing deals or YouTube collaborations, but from word-of-mouth and web forums, from working tirelessly at the bottom of festival bills for a few years before your band’s name inches up to the slightly larger print on those fliers. Broadened horizons come from the road and, often enough, from places like Cleveland.
Pigeons released their latest album, Pizazz, just this past fall. They did so with the Kickstarter-funneled help of their fans. (Surely some of you readers in Cleveland chipped in.)
“Pizazz is a snapshot of a few different eras in the band’s development,” Ormont says. “Even though we used the same studio for Pizazz and the album prior, Pleasure, I think Pizazz just sounds great. It has awesome sound quality, and I’m really proud of the result.”
The album veers from amped-up funk and soul to groovier, almost lounge-rock melodies. Listen to an embed below.
“We’re very open to trying out new genres, and more so just listening to a ton of music and letting those influences seep in,” Ormont says. “Now that we’re in Spotify’s world, all of us are discovering all sorts of great new music, and I think that’s really pushing our boundaries when we go back to our instruments and start writing again.”
The lessons learned are clear throughout Pizazz and beyond. Take, for instance, a new song that the band is road-testing now, “Dawn a New Day.”
It’s a Motownish number that blasts into some very cool improv.
They’ve got a bit more room to breathe, now that they’re making a name for themselves. “Dawn a New Day” recently did get the YouTube collabo treatment, sort of: Paste magazine brought Pigeons in for a live set. “Dawn” got a great reaction.
But it’s been trial and error, step by step for Pigeons. The band formed as a bit of college fun, playing parties and jamming endlessly. (Ormont joins Jeremy Schon on guitar, Ben Carrey on bass and Alex Petropulos on drums.) And it’s still fun, of course, Ormont is quick to say.
“Once we graduated, some of us got jobs — as many people do when they graduate college — and basically we just started booking too much,” Ormont says. “It used to be very difficult to get a gig. Once we started gaining some actual fans and it became easier to fill our weekends, it became harder to work jobs. We stretched that normal life versus band life as long as we could, just for financial reasons. But we were really starting to burn the candle at both ends.”
One of the goals then and now has always been to keep each night different. Fans tend to travel with the band, whether they’re doing quick New England weekend runs or hopping on the freeway for a full tour. Whereas the costs associated with Phish tour or Dead & Co. are at least kind of too prohibitively high to rekindle the glory days of “tour,” more regional bands like Pigeons have been able to foster that audience-interaction nucleotide of jam band DNA.
The impetus, then, is on Ormont and the band to keep things fresh — with new albums and new twists. “One of the ways you can continue to broaden your horizons is just learning other people’s music and seeing the tendencies of songwriting before you and incorporating that into your style,” he says. “We like to find opportunities to put ourselves through school, even if it is self-inflicted.”
As a cherry on top of the Cleveland run, Pigeons will be hosting a New Year’s Eve show in Covington, Ky., where they’ll perform a Disney-themed show. “We’re currently digging into the incredible catalog that is Walt Disney,” Ormont says. “They write such good songs and such incredible lyrics, and it’s been a crash course in songwriting just learning these tunes.”
Keep an open ear: The band will play a few of those tunes at the Cleveland shows.
“Maybe some of the songs we learn we won’t end up playing,” Ormont says, “But we end up taking a lot of lessons from it — different songwriting tips and tendencies that have clearly stood the test of time. Some of these songs are so classic and well written. Their compositions is why they’re so digestible and appreciated.”
The ethos from which the Disney show draws is relatable throughout Pigeons’ history. They’ve played a number of monthly residencies at The 8x10 in Baltimore (one show each week for a month). During those events, the guys have applied thematic constructs to their weekly appearances. For example, they’ve played “decades” shows that have them doing 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s tunes each week, respectively — “just to encourage people to come out and see the same band four times in one month,” Ormont says. “It’s a lot to ask of your fans, and of people who don’t know you.”
And that’s part of the adventure: Pigeons Playing Ping Pong adds to the story each night. And those who are there to hear it will add their own verses.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
With Jones for Revival (Friday) and Earphorik (Saturday)
8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Dec. 29 and 30, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $18-20, beachlandballroom.com