We’ve all fallen in love while on the train. Or the bus, or the plane, or whatever. It’s a shared experience. And on my way to the Polyphonic Spree concert, it happened to me. You know how you can just tell? The way they look, the way they act, the way they dress, it’s all down pat. Nothing ever comes from these chance encounters – or at least very rarely. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them.
I rounded the corner and arrived at Park West, meeting Alex, my faithful photographer friend, and we headed inside. Entering the venue itself we were immediately assaulted by the sounds of opener New Fumes: hazy psychedelic electronica with one man, one SG, one MacBook and a goat mask. The fadeout of the first song and transition into the next feels like a sunny, summer acid trip. New Fumes – a.k.a. Daniel Huffman, who has toured and collaborated with both The Polyphonic Spree and The Flaming Lips – has distilled 80s synth-pop with psychedelia and shoegaze into a White Dog of IDM. It’s not long before I regret not bringing the last of my Tramadol. One of the things most impressive about New Fumes is the all-encompassing show he brings. It’s not just a guy with some stuff on stage, he shows up to the party with carefully crafted and choreographed video that’s projected behind him (and also a screen on either side, in this space) which syncs up perfectly with the music. There’s white noise – both musically and on the projections – suddenly a baby owl (which immediately reminds me of Twin Peaks) and bird calls ring out, which meld into birdsongs of the technozoic and melt into the next track. Looking around, it’s clear that this crowd is not on enough drugs to truly appreciate this kind of music. The room should be filled with kids on a deep peyote trip, people should be passing mescaline around and becoming one with the displays and sounds. Still, everyone seems to at least be enjoying it, even if there’s no dancing. There should be dancing.
Sweet Lee Morrow is up next, another solo artist but this time only using a baby blue Fender acoustic guitar and a keyboard across the stage. He walks up and sits down on the stool wearing a brown corduroy sports coat, a multicolored scarf and jeans with tousled brown hair dyed black and red in patches, stubble, and two lines of eye shadow painted just under his eyes, one in the shape of a T like a tear. His is the stony, easy-going, quirky folk that puts you off-guard with its eccentric lyrics and relaxes you into a full-on, let’s-just-chill-and-have-a-good-time mode. The atmosphere is beyond casual. In the middle of one song, he completely forgets the next lyric and stops dead, looking like a deer caught in headlights but bemused by it all at the same time. After a couple attempts to recall them, he gives up and simply mumbles until the chorus, grinning the whole time. Then he walks over to the keyboard and laments the lack of a chair. When someone points out that he has a stool, he laughs, walks over to grab it, sits, and launches into a melancholy song in great contrast to the antics that preceded it. “Life isn’t really a battle,” he sings in “Good to be Glad,” “and love, drink it right from the bottle.” During the next song, his cell phone rings – and he actually picks it up and has an albeit brief conversation. “No, I won’t forget,” he assures his caller, before remembering his place in the song by whipping through the previous verse. After he finishes he plays and sings “Let’s all get up and dance to a song,” pauses, looks out at the audience, does it once more in hopes to implore the seated stragglers in the back to come up to the dance floor.
As the set goes on, I realize that both openers represent different aspects of The Polyphonic Spree – and both of them have been a part of the band (Sweet Lee Morrow was a founding member and plays keys on this tour). New Fumes has the strange, far-out, psychedelic side of the Spree – only using electronic instruments and forcing analog signals like his guitar through so many pedals it takes on a completely different character – as well as their pop sensibilities. Sweet Lee Morrow has the folky, sweet, and zany part of the Spree, the earnestness and overflowing joy that the group possesses. “You guys ever heard of a band called The Beatles?” he asks us. The crowd cheers in approval. “I’m gonna play a song not by The Beatles,” he grins; but all of his songs have that melodic anchor and fanciful ridiculousness of Macca. I mean, come on – “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? Suddenly, a momentous song emerges: “Politics” begins with a familiar but enjoyable chord progression before—“Fuck all these politics!” Morrow sings, with glib dismissal. It’s the beginning of a song laden with beautiful, gritty, despairing yet hopeful lyrics. “I’ll have a glass of luck, chase it down with fear,” “Strung out on Lover’s Lane on the way home from good music and cheap cocaine.” To me, it was the stand-out of the night so far. But his final song is also a knock-out: “We are creatures without comfort…with memories made of gold.”
After his set, roadies conceal the stage with red fabric strung between two poles and start hooking up something that looks roughly like World War I-era anti-aircraft guns on either side of the stage. The band saunter onto the stage (you could tell by the shoes moving around) and a xylophone begins lackadaisically twinkling before frontman Tim DeLaughter slits the crimson, carving a heart-shaped hole and thrusting his head through, waving and grinning at the audience. He then cuts off chunks and tosses them into the crowd. More instruments begin making sounds, but it’s totally unfocused, an orchestra warming up before the concerto begins. He chops down from the bottom of the heart and the taught fabric pulls apart, now only connected to itself by the part above the heart. Finally, he drives the scissors upwards and—WHAMO!—a burst of sound, the band arrive, chugging straight into the first number.
Every song The Polyphonic Spree brings sounds like a joyous outtake from Sgt. Pepper’s. Their presence onstage is immense – everyone wears a white robe with variously-colored hemming and accoutrements. They look like a cross between Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Manson Family, and what it looks like when the Hippy Experiment works. They have musicianship as good as any around, are tight as hell, and they bring the songs. There’s one massive chorus after another, some of which send chills down your spine. And they never really stop playing: it’s one long, strewn-together set; one song finishes, but there’s still music happening, it’s never silent. Then there’s this slow build until you feel as though you’re going to burst, and suddenly—whumf!—a release when the chorus comes, and more chills. It takes about a song and a half for me to realize that the drummer is insane. Like, crazy good. His fills are effortlessly astounding, and always in the pocket. Hell, the whole rhythm section – the percussionist (yes, with various instruments, including chimes both miniature and gargantuan) and the bassist – are off the charts.
The show is also a complete spectacle. I mean, it’s like seeing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band right there before your eyes. Only wearing robes. And with lasers. And confetti cannons – those menacing machines turned out not to be made for gunning down biplanes but rather gunning out confetti.
Blue lights, smoke, an interlude, noise, seagull calls from the guitar, and Bd-DOOM – a guitar riff from Tommy rings out and they rock for a minute before a very hazy breakdown fading into “See Me, Feel Me.” The kick-in of “Listening to You” is another chill-inducing moment, the whole band bouncing around, feeling the music – the guitar player’s actually pogoing – then he positions himself front and center before everything else falls silent and that iconic riff from “Pinball Wizard” rings out and the band deftly rumble through it before the drums crash into a different beat and here comes “Soldier Girl,” an incredible assault on the senses – and also one of the only songs from the first album played all the way through (“It’s the Sun” seemed to come in and out of a couple transitions, but was never fleshed-out). The sheer joy onstage is palpable and infectious, with Tim DeLaughter at one point leaning back on the bass player, the two looking at each other impishly and grinning, the love and companionship between them open for all to see.
What feels like an eternity yet only an instant into the set – time became amorphous – all the instruments drop out except for Sweet Lee on the keys and Tim singing into an overdriven mic. The guitar player sits and starts manipulating his pedals and gets a strange drone going. Suddenly, the band freezes in place, total silence except the ambient drone, and DeLaughter walks around, touching them, petting them, playing their instruments. He leads the crowd in a great, melodic “ahh” that struck me at once, considering the circumstances, as an almost meditative, sonorous “ohm.” Slowly the band join in and KAZART! they’re at full-force again! It really is amazing how they draw out the songs, never stop playing, join one to the next. It comes into my mind that, at this point, this has been such a huge emotional journey, the prospect of an encore almost seems exhausting to everyone involved. But their set must be wrapping up soon. The band quiet down again, this time into a piano interlude, and Tim Delaughter takes the set list, slowly folds it, and then tosses the paper plane into the audience for someone to catch. And the band explodes into “It’s the Sun” – “and it makes me smile,” sings DeLaughter before the band bow and head off stage.
They exit the auditorium and the crowd cheers and claps. Alex, my photographer, goes out for a smoke; which is how she chanced to meet the whole band. “Sweet Lee Marrow asked for a drag!” she tells me after the show. “Everybody said hi and I knew when to go back in.” The band enter through the doors at the back of the venue, where all the concertgoers filtered through, and worm their way slowly through the crowd, high-fiving and waving as they go. Everyone clears a path before them, and a lot of the group holds hands, making a ten-person-long snake. Once they get onto the stage again, one of the horn player goes up to every single member of the band and gives them a hug. Perhaps this is his last night on the tour. Tim has grabbed some tee shirts from the merch table and throws them out into the audience. The four beautiful backup singers start chanting “Love!” and another enormous chorus swells up – “Everybody outside! Everybody, everybody outside!” they cry. “We love to dream!” before ending on a mellow chord, bringing the entire room back down to earth. The band starts to congeal around a riff which becomes “Reach for the Sun.” The whole place starts applauding – this is one of the ones they’ve been waiting for – which transitions into clapping, keeping time. And then Tim DeLaughter lets out his voice and it sounds almost sanctimonious in the best possible way. The bass player is laying down this amazing walking bass line. The whole crowd is overfull with joy and the last confetti bomb explodes, showering everyone with a rainbow of paper. The crunch of the guitar player’s Orange amplifier is perfect for the George Harrison riffs he’s laying down.
Tim DeLaughter stands before us, glassy-eyed and open-armed, reaching for the heavens as a solitary piece of confetti dances through the air, twisting and floating towards earth. The band begins a polyphonic chant, like something from the Middle Ages, before bursting “Hey! It’s the sun!,” DeLaughter leading the whole audience. I notice the man in front of me, early 30s, shaved head, heavy-set, jumping and cheering. The singer smiles and acknowledges him. The vibe in the room is so incredibly positive – beautifully joyous. “Somehow we will keep it alive,” he sings. They transition into “The Championship,” and one by one the band members leave the stage. The horns leave, the guitar, then two of the backup singers, the drummer and bassist leave together, the cellist, the percussionist, the keys, and suddenly, as the last two backup singers start offstage, Tim stops them. It’s the birthday of one of them, and he leads the whole crowd in the song, one of the horns tooting from the balcony where the rest of the band has gathered. And then, once they’re off, he leads the audience, a capella, with one last line: “Raise our voices, make another sound, all in good time.” He stands, looking out at the audience, deeply moved. He thanks us, truly, profusely, and walks off. As it turns out, although I had wished for some substances earlier in the night, with The Polyphonic Spree, you end up not needing any drugs at all – they imbue you with an incredibly positive, natural high. A pure rush of pure joy, a shot in the arm of happiness and camaraderie. It’s a group that I had lost track of after their first album. And it’s a group I will not miss again. And with any luck those of us in attendance tonight will take that feeling out with us. It almost feels like this is all you need to change the world. Let’s just hope that Mr. Delaughter is right: somehow, we will keep it alive.
Reviewed by Will Fink on 5/16/12