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The Polyphonic Spree @ The El Rey 7/18/07
After having seen The Polyphonic Spree this week at the El Rey, I fear I am spoiled for seeing live bands from now on.
I've been a fan of the Spree since their debut album, The Beginning Stages Of... was released to critical accalim in 2002, but confess that at times I found the album perplexingly unlistenable in its entirety, but in turn felt that to listen to individual tracks--or Sections, as they call them--in isolation put me at cross-purposes with the band and the album's vision. However, their third and most recent release, The Fragile Army, which dropped this June, is eminently more listenable; the band seems to have found their stride, and evoke hints of New Wave, 60's British Invasion rock, and musical theatre to marry with their larger-than-life orchestral sound. So when the option of seeing this musical collective--twenty-five members in all--occupy the stage of the El Rey arose, I jumped at the chance.
Over two hours after they took to the stage I left the El Rey a convert, willing to enlist in their Fragile Army
Following opening act Jesca Hoop (the darling of KCRW airplay whose debut album will be released this fall), Spree frontman and founder Tim DeLaughter emerged in a spotlight's halo to welcome the assembled crowd. At the verge of tears, DeLaughter intimated that we were all there on a special night, and referenced with an air of tragedy and hope that the performance was dedicated to Eric Ferris, whom I later pinpointed as having been the manager of DeLaughter's former band, Tripping Daisy. Many attendees of this sold out show were there for this reason, although, admittedly, even a few days after, I will admit that I still do not know why, but can respectfully assume that donations were being solicited for a worthy and highly personal cause, and that ultimately the details are none of my business. In specific dedication to Ferris, the show began with DeLaughter asking that we sing along to John Lennon's "Imagine" as the words were projected across a swath of red cloth that stretched to cover the stage's proscenium from one end clear to the other. When the song ended, a pair of scissors broke through the center of the cloth, revealing DeLaughter, who cut a heart-shaped opening, tossing the cutout into a fan's eager hands, then completing the cut to reveal the stage and signal the start of the show.
DeLaughter himself seems to be cut from the same cloth as cinematic classroom rebel rousers, a la Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society or Jack Black in School of Rock; he's the music teacher you wished would show up at your middle school who rips up the sheet music for "Mull of Kintyre" and "Memory" from Cats with maniacal glee, and then proceed to revolutionize the way you think about not just third period music class, but life. During the performance he was like a impish conductor possessed, leading his audience of disciples to clap, snap, and even sing, rouding out the wall of sound of the Spree's many instruments and voices. It is this powerful connection with the audience that elevates the Spree's music from the act of listening to the immutable force of involvement; as the music--and frequently the confetti--rained on the crowd we were drawn inward, while we were being urged through the lyrics to allow ourselves be drawn outward. The messages in the music are rooted in positivity and optimism: Love, sun, light, partnership, survival, enjoyment.
An hour into their jubilant performance DeLaughter told the adoring crowd that the were about to play their last number. There was a murmur of disbelief that rippled through the audience (the young teens behind me seemed horrified that the band would not be playing the popular track "Light and Day" from their debut album, professing vehemently to each other how resonantly significant that song was to their very young lives) which DeLaughter tempered by telling us to remember that life sometimes threw us "curveballs." He conducted us as though we were his personal choir, and our collected voice crested at his whim while the band departed the stage and the theatre was submerged in darkness. Now conductorless, and thirsting for more, we kept up the chant, but glanced around nervously. Remembering that it's never over until they turn on the lights, and only performers as egotistical as, say, Madonna, would refuse to play their most popular tunes, we stood in the dark, wondering when they would reappear.
Then came the first of many curveballs, as the mainfloor was parted like a Red Sea of bodies and the band journeyed to the promised land of the stage, having swapped their Fragile Army outfits for the Spree's hallmark floor-length robes, this time white ones with a broad colored band along the bottom. One by one they were helped onto the stage, the last being DeLaughter, who grinned cunningly and then asked us which songs we still wanted to hear. "Do you want us to play 'Hold Me Now?'" he asked. "'Light and Day' and 'Soldier Girl' too?" We cheered. The kids behind me were noticeably relieved. "We'll play 'em all!" From where I stood I could see the digital clock blinking in the wings offstage. It was two minutes past eleven. The Spree took up their instruments and rocked us some more. And then some more. They blew us away with an unexpected and rollicking cover of Nirvana's "Lithium." DeLaughter urged us to go hoarse with yelling, and to call in sick the next day--the day off would be on him. Then they rocked some more. And then more still.
Their "encore" set came in at well over an hour--longer than their initial set. The clock backstage blinkingly told me it was close to quarter after midnight when those lights finally came on. It became impossible to remember what they'd played--they played just about everything from all their albums, including the bulk of The Fragile Army ("Running Away," "The Fragile Army," "Younger Yesterday," "Mental Cabaret," and "The Championship") and The Beginning Stages Of... ("It's the Sun," "La La," "Hanging Around the Day," and "Light and Day"). Really, you name it, it seemed they played it. And so I was spoiled; I'm spoiled for shows to come because at five times the size of your average rock band the Polyphonic Spree packs a powerful wallop, and how often really do bands play encore sets that reach past an hour, wherein the ringleader pauses and says "Nope, I feel like playing more, let's keep going!" And spoiled for pressing play on my iPod or in my iTunes to hear their album emerge from just my own small speakers or headphones without the beckoning and encouraging DeLaughter to reel me in, or the confetti to cascade over me like an unexpected snow flurry on Christmas Morning?
So I emerged into the cool night amidst the lights of Wilshire Boulevard, not worried about the lateness of the hour, or the scratchiness in my throat. Instead I felt ready to raise my arms in the Fragile Army's salute, with eyes and heart wide open to the take in the often underappreciated beauty of the world, and to echo the Polyphonic Spree's battle cry: "Love! Love! Love!"
Video of The Polyphonic Spree doing "It's the Sun" live in Seattle from their show there on 7/15, just three days prior to hitting the boards of the El Rey here in LA on 7/18.
Photos by Lindsay William-Ross for LAist