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U Street Music Hall goes to the country with PigPen Theatre Co.

PigPen Theatre Co. performing "The Weight" at U Street Music Hall on April 2, 2014.
PigPen Theatre Co. performing "The Weight" at U Street Music Hall on April 2, 2014.
Alex Dongala

PigPen Theatre Co. took U Street Music Hall to the country last night. Seven men, two banjos, one accordion, two guitars, one bass, one tambourine, one keyboard, one fiddle, one drum set, two stand alone drums, and all band members mic-ed. U Street Music Hall is not a large hall by any means, so for all of that to be on a small stage was a bit surprising. But every instrument and every person played their part in the stories they chose to tell.

PigPen Theatre Co. is not just a band, they are an actual theatre company. Their plays have been critically acclaimed, and they were featured in a TEDx on storytelling. While their show wasn’t theatrical, their knack for storytelling was evident. Opening with “Crow” let the audience know right off the bat that they have the talent to back up the acclaim. Each band member had a mic for a reason, their harmonies were beautiful. You felt like you were down south, listening to something special you might not hear again. It set off the night on the right foot; a great introduction to those who weren’t familiar with them and a reminder to their fans.

Moving into the next song, drummer Arya Shahi jokingly announced “that's all the time we have tonight.” The crowd laughed, but he wasn’t exaggerating too much. Playing eleven songs in an hour, they were serious about making their strict curfew. In that short hour, they put on a great show. Beautifully playing tracks like “Sailor,”“Song from the Stone,” and “I Crash.” On tracks likes these you drift to a simpler place and time; everyone coming together for a day or night, with kids playing in the yard, a couple of people jamming on the porch, and a grandfather telling his grandchildren tall tales. They have an Irish folk music feel, mainly because Ben Ferguson’s voice is fitting for that style of music. There is a genuineness to the music they write and the way they play.

A little later, they took a cue from opening act The Spring Standard and asked the crowd to make a whole on the floor so they a could play a new song they have been working on. Starting off a little rocky, they quickly found their footing, continuing to impress the crowd. Thankfully, the audience actually heeded the band’s request to be as quiet as possible. It was a nice acoustic break, and another example of how simple can be best.

After getting up close with the audience, they reminded them about the time restraint, “we’re on a bit of a curfew so we are going to blast through these next few songs, think of this as blasts of fireworks” at the end of the show. And they meant it, playing only three more songs. Including granting a “nameless face’s request,” by playing “The Way I’m Running.” “We’re about to make it rain, feel free to dance,” Ferguson announced. It was certainly the most upbeat song of the night, and perhaps the most upbeat song they have. And definitely the most movement from the crowd.

They clearly aren’t just another folk rock or roots rock band. Comparisons to Mumford and Sons aren’t wrong, but they aren’t entirely accurate either. There is this grassroots, Appalachian, soul feel to their music that Mumford and Sons doesn’t quite have. One of the great things about them is that they are able to incorporate different styles of music without the music sounding confused.

You could see this in their final song of the night, a cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” Inviting opening act The Spring Standard on to the already crowded stage, so add a harmonica and three more people, they did the song proud. The crowd certainly approved, cheering and singing every word. They may not want the fame that comes along with breaking out like Mumford and Sons, but they do deserve the recognition.