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
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
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
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.