LIVE: PigPen Theatre Co. @ MASS MoCA, 8/15/15

Review by Greg Haymes

Last summer the young, seven-member PigPen Theatre Co. brought their play, “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” to the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Times Union theater critic Steve Barnes hailed the production as “joyful,” “imaginative,” “delightful,” “engaging” and “utterly winning.”

Earlier this month the PigPen ensemble returned to the Berkshires, performing just down the road at MASS MoCA. But this time they weren’t showcasing a new play. Rather they were playing a captivating concert in support of their recently released sophomore album, Whole Sun. And those very same adjectives applied to their music.

Yes, they’re an award-winning theater company. (They took top honors for their plays two consecutive years at the NYC Fringe Festival.) And they’re an excellent folk-rock band, too. (Huffington Post named their debut album, Bremen, to their Top 10 albums list in 2012.) And oh yeah, they’re also writing a children’s book, and they made their feature film debut in “Ricki & the Flash.” Is there anything that they can’t do… and do well?

Outdoors in the Dre Pavilion (only slightly delayed by the thunderstorm that swept through earlier in the evening), the band opened their hour-and-a-half concert with the rousing back-to-back volley of the Mumford & Sons-like “Crow” and “Choir.” During the latter, red-headed lead vocalist Ryan Melia sang, “Choir sing like an iris/See what I’m in need of/Sing like I’m crying/Sing like we’re family.” And when the seven age twentysomething men raised their voices together in robust harmony, there was no denying the familial connection.

Over the solid rhythm section of drummer Arya Shahi and bassist Curtis Gillen, the band shifted instruments and musical styles seemingly at will – from the rockabilly bounce of “We Won’t” to the waltz-time “Teeth” to the prog-rock hoedown of “The Way I’m Running.” Mid-set, the band jumped off stage and situated themselves in the middle of the jam-packed crowd, launching into a pair of exquisite, totally unplugged tunes, including the soaring “The Goose Song.” Guitarist Ben Ferguson took on the lead vocal chores for a couple of songs (notably “Mayfly”), and he joined Shahi and banjoman Alex Falberg in the triple-drum attack of “Sister.”

But the evening’s biggest surprise was accordionist Dan Weschler stepping up to the microphone for the encore – a rip-snorting rendition of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ howler, “I Put a Spell On You,” complete with a banjo solo by Falberg.

While they were in town, they also did a reading of their new play, “The Hunter & the Bear,” at Williamstown Theatre Festival, so don’t be surprised if you see PigPen Theatre Co. in the Berkshires again soon – maybe back in theater mode next time around.

We Won’t
You Woke, I Waited
The Way I’m Running
The Goose Song (unamplified, out in the crowd)
??? (unamplified, out in the crowd)
Song From the Stone
I Put a Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
The Weight (The Band)

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