Polyphonic Spree's sound woes lead to sour night


August 16, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

With two dozen members onstage and instrumentation that includes harp, flute, French horn, theremin, Moog synthesizer, trombone and tubular bells, no one can fault the Polyphonic Spree for a lack of ambition.

Former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter has not only succeeded in realizing his dream of compiling an indie-rock orchestra complete with a nine-member choir, he has also built the unwieldy Dallas ensemble into one of the most impressive touring acts in America and Europe.

Naysayers, including some professional critics and indie-rock hipsters, deride the group by claiming it's a novelty act -- as if building, orchestrating and touring with such a musical army is mere shtick -- and they scoff at the relentless optimism of its music by evoking comparisons to religious glee clubs like Up With People or sinister cults like David Koresh's Branch Davidians. (The band's goofy choir robes -- which have gone from plain white to Technicolor for this tour -- don't help in this regard.)

I've seen the Polyphonic Spree eight times in the last three years -- in Texas, in California and at home in Chicago -- and it has always been easy to dismiss the skeptics' complaints because the music was so uplifting and transcendent. I've never left a Spree show without sporting a big, goofy grin on my face -- until Friday night.

Everything was in place for a great performance at the Park West: The group was playing the first of two packed shows at one of the best-sounding venues in Chicago, and it was touring behind its second album, "Together We're Heavy," which shows considerable growth in terms of DeLaughter's songwriting and the band's arranging.

But the concert never clicked. Plagued by mysterious pre-show sound problems that sent piercing wails of feedback through the venue several times before the group took the stage, the band started late (there was no opening act) and it overdid the "building anticipation" routine by letting its opening fanfare go on way too long before getting down to business.

When it finally did, it started with a harp solo -- never the most impressive opening. And the sound problems continued, with loud "pops" from the microphones and the flute and theremin coming across as shrill and cutting until at least halfway through the show.

It was as if, after spending several years pulling off the miracle of turning a small, cramped rock club into Symphony Hall, the acoustics were too good for the group to handle now that it had arrived at a proper-sounding venue.

As problematic as the sound was, though, the Spree could still have prevailed if its usual energy level had been intact. First-time concertgoers may be surprised to hear it, but DeLaughter is usually even more animated than he was on Friday, transforming himself into a preacher who's been possessed either by the Holy Ghost or by that manic rock 'n' roll Devil as he leads the crowd by frantically jumping in place in time with the group's familiar "ba-da-ba, ba-ba" refrains.

The energy just wasn't flowing from the stage on Friday, and as a result, the waves of crescendos sounded more like bombastic overkill than dramatic climaxes. The crowd largely stood in place, arms folded and voices silent, as songs such as "Hold Me Now," "When the Fool Becomes a King" and the encore's opening of "Soldier Girl" fell flat, dropping with a resounding thud.

Every group has an off night, but when it happens to an act as elaborate as the Polyphonic Spree, it is tempting to believe the complaints and agree that this is a band with gimmicks and an act instead of songs and a genuine musical vision.

But if you left the Park West with nothing but skepticism and questions about all the hype, the group deserves a second chance: "Together We're Heavy" stands as one of the best releases this year, and I have no doubt that the Polyphonic Spree retains the power to make believers of us all.