There was a time when Steve Pellegrino didn't play accordion. But you have to go back a ways -- some 50 years, to before Pellegrino took his first lesson, at about age 7.
Shouldering an accordion wasn't the act of eccentricity it might be today: In the Mon Valley coal town of New Eagle, accordions were ubiquitous, a fixture at weddings for popular numbers and ethnic tunes alike.
Practically every guy in Pellegrino's family -- father, grandfather, cousins -- played. And Pellegrino himself has played ever since, right through his long career as Pittsburgh's best-known performance artist-slash-professional plasterer.
"The accordion ties me to everything," says Pellegrino.
Pellegrino honors those linkages in Accordion Stories, a new one-man show he performs April 28-30, at Grey Box Theatre.
The stories start in the 1920s, with his grandparents in Italy, before they immigrated, in 1931. They continue to the present, including the story of how Pellegrino came to play "Jumpin' Jack Flash" with a high school marching band in a film by Braddock's cinematic poet laureate, Tony Buba.
Pellegrino describes the evening-length show as "just me and three or four accordions," including his 1958 Excelsior Double Cassato Symphony Artist, "the Stratocaster of accordions." Proceeds benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank
But the show's more than nostalgia. Pellegrino, whose art often explores the work ethic and his working-class heritage, notes such recent assaults on working people as Wisconsin's prohibition on collective bargaining for public-sector unions, and Maine Gov. Paul LePage's removal of a labor-history mural.
Pellegrino wants to remind audiences about the travails his grandfather faced working in a coal mine absent union representation -- and to connect it to people who work unpaid overtime today.
But it all comes back to the key organ, and the songs he'll play, from standards to originals. Accordion Stories also traces the instrument's own arc of popularity. Pellegrino recalls, for instance, his accordion teacher's wedding band playing "Wipeout" in the '60s. But circa 1970, high school classmates would mock Pellegrino himself for adapting rock music to the instrument. "Everybody's like, 'You can't play "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on the accordion.'"
Now, though, the accordion is back in vogue. Pellegrino even gets invited to play on records by younger local musicians like Jason Baldinger. "I held on long enough," he quips.
STEVE PELLEGRINO PERFORMS ACCORDION STORIES 8 p.m. nightly, Thu., April 28-Sat., April 30. Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $12-15 plus food item. 412-576-0898 or www.qmproductionsinc.com