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October 13, 2003

Hallelujah! Polyphonic Spree leads Metro revival

The Polyphonic Spree's debut album, The Beginning Stages Of… is a pretty good pop record. It dabbles in a familiar palette, drawing from the sunny melodies and sing-along choruses of the Beach Boys and the last two Flaming Lips albums. The record is neither original, nor revolutionary; it is merely steadfastly solid. However, the Polyphonic Spree in concert is another matter altogether. In this forum, the band is akin to nothing that you have ever seen.

I suppose I failed to mention that the Dallas-based Spree has 23 members, including a French horn player and a theremin player, and that each wears a personalized white robe during each show. Its frontman is the uber-charismatic Tim DeLaughter—he of the now-defunct band Tripping Daisy—who leads an eight-person choir, and is accompanied by a percussionist, a drummer, two keyboardists, a trumpeter, a trombone player, a flautist, a bassist, a guitarist, a violinist, a cellist, a harpist, and an effects wiz, in addition to the guys playing French horn and theremin. They look like extras from the hit musical Godspell Meets Bright Eyes, and they sound even better. And at the end of the show they drop hundreds of white balloons on the crowd.

Of course, this can't quite be captured on a record, neither wax nor digital, so those who might feel lukewarm about the band cannot know what they're in for at a live performance. Though it may not be as resonant off the stage, the Spree is already attempting to invade your eyes and ears, appearing in numerous music magazines (including the latest issue of Spin), and providing the music for the commercial that advertises the unholy marriage between the Volkswagen Beetle and the Apple iPod. Yes, the Spree is now an "it" band, and perhaps the one that you would be most inclined to bring home to dinner with Mom, if she had enough seats at the table.

To be honest, I can't tell most Polyphonic Spree songs apart. The majority involve several repetitions of the words "sun" or "day," and the Wayne Coyne-like voice of the irrepressible DeLaughter calling his soldiers of happiness to arms. However, the set list just doesn't matter when the band hits the stage. On Tuesday night at the Metro, while the Cubs were blowing a four-run lead just down the street, the Spree assembled slowly, beginning with its ace percussionist, and then filling the stage with the other ragamuffin orphans from the Dallas music scene and some that were just picked up along the way to the show. Then DeLaughter came in like a whirling dervish, long curly hair framing his pleasant face, wooden cross around his neck, and the group exploded with sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.

Although DeLaughter has said in interviews that the Spree is not a Christian band, he could have fooled me, with its church choir look and impossibly wholesome message. DeLaughter is practically a modern-day Christ figure on stage, leading his disciples in songs of sun worship. "Have a day/Celebrate/Soon you'll find the answers." C'mon now, Tim.

No matter. Denominational or not, you'd have to be soulless to not enjoy Spree's show. The joy of its members is infectious, with the instrumentalists jumping up and down, the choir demonstrating Supremes-style shimmies and shakes, and DeLaughter just looking like the happiest man on the planet. He led sing-alongs. He waved to his friends in the crowd. He updated us on the Cubs score. He sang a number from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The only thing he didn't do was cook us all dinner and tuck us in to bed.

Besides more variety in the songs, there's really not much I could ask for in a live show that the Spree did not provide. Leaving the Metro I felt giddy, ecstatic. My life had been affirmed in a mere two hours for a rate of $15. I had been cleansed with the holy water of symphonic pop, had been enveloped with the sweet incense of Camel Lights, and had taken communion with hundreds of my hipster friends. If I were emo, I would have cried.

Who knows how long the Polyphonic Spree can ride this wave of buzz and gimmickry? Although its unique make-up and image is cause for every music writer to cream his pants, the band is more than just a product of the hype machine; they actually have the talent and the chutzpah to forge a solid career.

At one point during the show, some drunk in the back of the Metro yelled, "They're better than Jesus!" to which DeLaughter replied, "At least Jesus had a sense of rhythm," as the band struggled to find its tempo. But could Paul and John tickle the ivories or make the theremin hum? No, they were fishermen. And did Christ have half the pipes of DeLaughter? Though divine, I think not.