It’s 10 pm on a Monday night, the band is playing, and exhausted parents can’t help but lovingly stuff their kids’ ears with cotton and grin like idiots. The place isn’t packed but it sounds like it is. We’re part of a giant blissed-out sing-a-long, a psychedelic pop show for the 21st century urban family. Meet the Polyphonic Spree.
Maybe you didn’t come to a rock show to be converted, but you can’t help but leave this rock show changed. It’s like a crack in the neck from Brian Wilson’s chiropractor. Take a bad day, a noisy mind, a broken heart. Add the Polyphonic Spree. Now you’re bathing in a sunshine sea of bunnies and butterflies and green grass and warm days. This band can, if you let them, make you believe again. At the very least, they’re proof of innocence in the Land of Indie Rock. Forget the white and red striped costumes, the thin ties and perfect messy haircuts. Forget MTV and managers, sex appeal and radio airplay. The 20 piece orchestra and the white robes aren’t gimmicks. Some people still wanna make music for all the right reasons.
21 Apr 2003: Aladdin Theater Portland, Oregon
A Polyphonic Spree show is a little like church, except the parents don’t mind that the kids are screaming in the aisles and the record collecting geeks have microphones. There’s a three-year old spinning like a top. Watch him drop to the floor, lay on his back, throw his legs up, smile big and toothy. His mother scoops him up in her tattooed arms, takes him closer to the music. And then there’s the obsessive taper, huddled over his portable DAT machine, capturing the madness, an archivist of joy, a completist documenting the major-chord wonder. And down on the floor it’s standing room only. Embedded in the two-legged mob is an unfamiliar sight: the DIY-Stumptown crowd, hands out of their pockets, broad grins on their faces. They’re actually dancing, an overt display from the covert cool.
The band seems to be feeding off the crowd. Maybe they realize that happiness is not the primary emotion running through our nervous systems. They make their choice: don’t waste time chatting with the audience. Speak through the music. So DeLaughter never says much to us, and no other band member comes near the pulpit. DeLaughter’s clearly the leader, the lightning rod, but as a front man he’s in his own world. He’s all over the place. He’s a psych-pop madman. The only time he speaks to us directly is when he changes a few lyrics to match the band’s temporary resting point: “This is our first tour/We’re happy to be here/There’s a lot of us/On the bus/Hello Portland/We’re happy to be here/.”
Watch him, the sweaty euphoric conductor leading his choir. This dream is clearly his, Delaughter’s last band, Tripping Daisy, called it quits. Just like that. Their lead guitarist overdosed, and DeLaughter retreated back to life-as-he-knew it: wife, kids, house. But he couldn’t get a vision out of his head, a dream of massive vocals and euphoric melodies. Hello Polyphonic Spree. DeLaughter gathered up former band mates, friends. The word spread. Their first album, The Beginning Stages of â¦ The Polyphonic Spree, got picked up and now they’re here, in Portland Oregon, carrying a big torch. This is the band’s first full-fledged tour, they’re taking the beast on the road, they’re gigging on Jimmy Kimmel, their name’s popping up at high-profile summer festivals across the country. The Word is spreading.
You have to wonder how the band funded this sucker, given that it’s their first tour, first album, and their label, Good Records, is a small independent affair. It makes no logical sense: think of the logistics. Think of the massive expense, think of the sound guy trying to keep this mix out of the mud. The material cost of taking a troupe this big on the road must be great, but the band is banking on the spiritual rewards being far greater. The Lord must be on their side. There’s certainly a Holy presence inside of their sound.
Simultaneously original and wholly derivative, spooky and super-positive, clean (as in sober) and wasted in 1960s style bacchanalia, the Polyphonic Spree kick around in peak pop moments for five, six minutes at a time. Imagine your favorite Beatles moment, maybe a certain bass line, or a coda. Now imagine letting it ride 10 times as long. Deliriously dizzying, right? DeLaughter reaches for the heavens as he sings. He’s like a cross between Joe Cocker and Wayne Coyme of the Flaming Lips. He’s surrounded by a stage packed tight with stringed instruments and horns, a theremin, you know, the usual rock band trappings. There’s a French horn player, a trombonist, two keyboardists, a flautist, a violinist, a trumpeter. There’s 20 (give or take a few) human voices singing at the tops of their lungs and it sounds like hundreds and they’re jumping around the stage like spastic flying fish. This is sonic and visual saturation. This is monkey mind overload.
Check your skepticism at the door. Most of the audience is shaking their ass, standing when they could be sitting, smiling when they could be frowning. It’s hard, you have to really try, to keep a straight face, to resist the impulse to get up and dance. This is one of those live concerts where, if you breathe deeply, relax even the slightest bit, you just might feel a shiver pass through your body. It’s irony-free symphonic mayhem.
The sound of hundreds of people singing, ecstatically, reminds us of every church service, every National Anthem, every sporting event, every Bic lighter encore we’ve ever witnessed. Think of a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and Pet Sounds, and the ending coda of George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity [Version One]” from 1970’s All Things Must Pass. Think of the early Moody Blues, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the ending of “She’s So Heavy”. Imagine the furry creatures from the Flaming Lips’ last tour. Imagine if the Beatles’ had taken Sgt. Pepper’s on the road.
Want to get a little closer to the inside of all of that? Want to step outside of your restraint, your concerns? Maybe you just need to feel the way your jaw muscles feel after you’ve smiled so much it hurts. Or maybe you just need to go home knowing that you sang along, not caring what you sounded like, or who heard. Maybe you need a break from worrying about World War Three (or is it Four?) or if the next paycheck is coming, or when you’re going to get a decent night’s sleep. Let the white-robed Texans shine a little light your way. Welcome to the world of the Polyphonic Spree, where everyone is welcome.