23 May 2012: Webster Hall New York
Short of a production of Godspell, the Polyphonic Spree is as close to a Smile-on-Your-Brother rock ‘n roll revival as you’re going to get these days. Sunny grins and an insistent eye toward the goodness that the band believes infuses the soul of everyone is the reason they exist. They proselytize, and they are stubborn in their faith. Perhaps this is an evolutionary trait, a defense in a cut-throat world. Because the New York audience at their March 24th show at Webster Hall must surely have tested them.
You would think that New York City is almost paradise for a music lover. Musicians of every shade and conception play every night all over town. But too many times over the years I have found myself envying the crowds in Baltimore or Topeka or Flagstaff, places where a band coming through town is an Event with a capital ‘E.’ Because crowds here can be appalling, and the folks watching the Spree definitely count. They stood still with arms crossed over their chests, fiddled with their phones, stared blankly at the stage with the bland, upturned mouths of those watching a sitcom with a canned laugh track. Sure, they politely applauded at the end of each song, but they were as passive as passive can be, bodies waiting to be entertained and seemingly unable to recognize that the entertainment presented to them not only deserves far more than politeness but also only truly works when the crowd buys in to the give-and-take that is the hallmark of any truly great rock show, and is especially so with a band like the Spree.
Because the Spree contains 21 members, including a brass section, a DJ, a flutist, a harpist, and a leader, Tim DeLaughter, whose nightly mission is to coax his audience into collectively joining the group as its twenty-second member. After an opening set by Spree keyboardist Sweet Lee Morrow, road crew stretched across the front of the stage a red ribbon at least four feet tall, and 20 minutes later the tiny pointed tips of a pair of scissors poked through, the whole implement emerging as DeLaughter cut a giant heart into the ribbon and stepped through, arms spread wide, in a white choir robe.
And then those 21 band members blew up. On record, the band can be exceptionally mellow, the kind of group easy to cohabitate with and not necessarily a group to stop and actively absorb. Live, though, they gain a blow-your-hair-back force. At Webster Hall they were a dense swell of sound, a kind of pop symphony blasting out sing-song’y melodies carrying the sentiments the band is known for: “Love the life you choose / Keep yourself feeling brand new / And love your strife with life,” “Time will show the way / and love will shine today / so love can grow,” and the like. Every person on stage played his or her heart out and they all obviously liked performing together. They opened with the sure bet, the most catchy tunes from their break-out album Together We’re Heavy and then dipped back and forth between additional songs from that album and others from The Fragile Army, with a brief foray into “Pinball Wizard” as well.
The Who cover came about halfway through the set, and the sing-along it prompted must have flooded DeLaughter with relief. He had up until that point been noticeably demoralized by a crowd displaying all of the excitement of Velveeta cheese. His band’s positivity, however, was relentless. The crowd’s indifference seemed to drive them to smile bigger smiles, to leap about and build a back-and-forth rapport, to pump out more energy, to build a collective joyfulness that persevered in spite of the odds. The flutist headbanged at various points. No, it wasn’t cheesy at all. By the time the whole group left the stage and reemerged in the back of the hall to march their love parade through the crowd, the crowd was won over and DeLaughter looked redeemed.
And that ultimately is the Spree’s greatest accomplishment. They take ideas and methods that in an increasingly bitter world seem ever more childish and reclaim them as viable components of a complete adult life. Tickets for the show were 20 bucks. That’s 95 cents per band member. The Spree doesn’t even have a new record out. Going out on the road with the margin of error between breaking even and losing money so slim is itself an act of faith. It is a mission.