By Roger LeLievre
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 12, 2014)
The headline act at The Ark Friday night was a favorite from this year’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival, The Pigpen Theatre Co. The opening act was The Spring Standards, a band from an earlier Folk Festival.
Truth be told, either of them could have gotten top billing, and really it didn’t matter anyway. The two young alt-folk ensembles mixed and matched members at will, in the process absolutely delighting a sold out, standing-ovation kind of crowd.
Based on the name, it was hard to predict what to expect from The Pigpen Theatre Co., seven New York-based guys who are both a band and a theater group (music from a couple of their shows, including “Bremen” and “Just Like the Sea,” was included in Friday’s set). Energetic, literate, a little bit Celtic but otherwise had to pigeonhole, Pigpen used banjos, guitar, accordion and especially great harmonies on older songs and also a few fresh tunes.
More than once I was reminded of The Avett Brothers, or even Great Big Sea. At one point, Pigpen abandoned the stage and mics, standing mid-house for an acoustic tune that sounded absolutely lovely due to the small size of the room.
A bit of background: Pigpen’s Arya Shahi, Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Daniel Weschler, Matthew Nuernberger and Ryan Melia met as students at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2008. They decided to form a group that would look for different ways to tell stories. They started in theater, but added music to their productions. Soon, those songs became more than just a part of their act.
Although each said so several times, it was clear from their actions that the members of the two bands genuinely liked and admired the others. And since it was the last show of Pigpen’s first U.S. tour, the energy was probably amped up even more than usual. There was an endearing sense of goofiness permeating both sets.
The Spring Standards, all multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, played a crisp, energetic set of originals, with vocalist/keyboardist/percussionist Heather Robb a whirling dervish as she cycled from instrument to instrument.
The evening ended with members of both bands on stage delivering The Band’s classic “The Weight,” with many people in the house singing along and stamping their feet. It was a great way to end a musically-memorable night at The Ark.