On a cold, sleepy midweek night in February, two of the country’s best jam bands descended on the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and the growing like wildfire Goose were on an extended tour that included two sold-out nights at the legendary Troubadour club in Los Angeles, just a few nights before. A pair of Seattle fans that had been following the band across the southwest for the previous seven shows were pleasantly surprised to find a half-full venue at this stop in the rural college town of SLO.
The crowd comprised mostly of college students, farmers and fishermen more than made up for their small numbers, with their enthusiastic embrace of the bands at the venue. The old historic theater still shows movies on occasion but has become mainly a performance hall for groups from a variety of musical genres. The place is a hidden gem on the sparsely populated Central California coast, with ticket prices costing a fraction of similar venues in the densely populated south coast areas. The theater converted the front third of the building into a standing-room area perfect for dance entranced fans. Plush old movie seats filled the remaining two thirds, strategically placed on an incline offering a great view from every seat. Local beer and wine can be purchased along with popcorn and candy at the snack bar.
Much of the crowd arrived early to catch the opening set by the Goose, a quartet from Norwalk, CT. The band, along with headliners Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, are part of a new wave of jam bands, unlike those that emulate the legacy of the Grateful Dead or Phish. These bands seemed to be rooted in a more jazz-like tradition of rock inspired by innovative groups like the iconic Mahavishnu Orchestra. Both groups, however, offer their own unique twist on jam band music, sharing an intensity that has garnered them fans willing to travel across state lines to follow them.
Goose featured Rick Mitarotonda on vocals and guitar, Peter Anspach on vocals, keyboards, and guitar, the aptly named Trevor Bass on bass, and Ben Atkind on drums. The band welcomed the colorfully dressed crowd in the cold dark venue and immediately broke into an intense jam that had much of the audience dancing and swaying to the music by the end of the first song. The theater seemed to physically warm as the band continued to play, and the crowd fell into a euphoric dance trance. Kudos had to be lauded on Manny Newman, the lighting maestro for Pigeons, who created a modern-day psychedelic extravaganza, rivaling a light show at a big EDM festival, for both bands. The band played original music from their 2016 debut album, “Moon Cabin," and a new tune they recorded last year, “All I need.” The band also played a riveting extended cover of Bruce Hornsby’s classic song “The Way It Is,” which elicited a vociferous sing-along from the rapt audience. The hour-long set left the crowd pleading for more.
By the time Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, an American funk jam band from Baltimore, Maryland took the stage for the headline set; their “Flock” had tightly pressed against the front of the stage. The jam band has garnered a loyal following of fans based on their relentless live appearances (over one thousand shows and counting), including almost every major music festival in the country. The band blends innovative jazz-rock with funky beats that would make George Clinton smile.
The group is led by emotive singer and guitarist Greg Ormont, whose bulging eyes have become a trademark of the band's intensity. Jeremy Schon, the bands, lead guitar, and vocalist played mind-bending solos throughout the night. Bassist Ben Carrey laid down the funky bass lines that help set the group apart from other jam bands, and he added backing vocals as well. The newest member of the band drummer extraordinaire Alex 'Gator' Petropulos, joined the group in 2015. His jazz-influenced drumming style added yet another intricate layer to the band's impressive jams. The group, like most good jam bands, never plays the same set two nights in a row, usually offering up a different cover for each venue and overlapping only a few tunes like their new single “King Kong.” The result is a unique and intense live performance at every concert, and the intimate show in SLO town was a dream come true for many in the “Flock.”