The Polyphonic Spree are quite likely the craziest band I have ever seen. If nothing else, they are undoubtedly the craziest 21-member rock band in existence. Actually, apparently the band comprises an occasionally-changing cast of characters around a central trio, so the numbers can vary. But for now, it is 21. There's also the fact that they were all dressed identically – in black near-military-style uniforms. Now, since I've never heard anything by the band before, and most of the songs weren't introduced (they sometimes just segued from one into another while one instrument would sort of provide the change in key), I won't be able to produce a setlist today. The date, though, was August 4, 2007, and the venue was The Pageant, right in my current hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
As I said, there were 21 members, all put to good use. Tim DeLaughter is the sort of director and lead singer, but also on the front of the stage were two keyboardists (one of whom had a laptop to sometimes add some effects), a flutist, and a three-piece horn section. Behind them were a cellist, a violinist, two guitarists, and a bass guitarist. (One of the guitarists looks a lot like me, without red hair... so weird.) Behind them were two drummers (one on a set and one with a huge variety of percussion instruments, including tubular bells and a timpani), a harpist, and a six-piece female choir. In addition to DeLaughter and the choir, the flutist would often sing into her flute's mic (but from a distance, so it may not have even appeared in the mix), and the keyboardist with the laptop sang into a mic too. There's a lot going on all at once.
The Polyphonic Spree's music is all very upbeat, just very sunny. Incidentally, references to the sun appeared all over the lyrics, when I could catch them. There was so much going on that it wasn't always easy to catch the lyrics, and with so many instruments to try to pick out of the mix, and a video screen on top of that, I had plenty of distractions from the lyrics. The video screen seemed to blend input from two people on the sidelines with cameras and clips from all sorts of sources, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is appropriate, since the band appeared on the soundtrack). Effects were mixed in live, so it made for an interesting display.
The songs tended to be mid-tempo or a bit faster, and every musician played on every song. It's truly symphonic rock. DeLaughter was clearly the most prominent member, but everyone was active. The choir frequently backed him up. The drummers would do snare or timpani rolls all the time, and crash cymbal hits abounded. The keyboards provided several tones, be it normal 80s string-synth sort of stuff, more atmospheric Eno-esque sounds, Radiohead Kid A tones, or a good old piano sound. The horns, perhaps the least utilized, nonetheless appeared all the time and high in the mix. The bass was quite discernible and the guitars kept rocking (although it was hard to pick apart which guitarist played what). The guitarists usually played clean-toned electric rhythm parts, but sometimes they turned up the distortion, played lead bits, and/or traded for acoustics. The flute was mic'd well and easy to hear in the mix – it seemingly was the lead instrument. Unfortunately, the violin, cello, and harp were near impossible to distinguish. I rarely could pick out their input.
Earlier, I said this band was crazy. Well, they're really good and make really driving, dramatic songs that just feel really good, but they match their sound with great enthusiasm. DeLaughter ran all over stage and had a little box to climb on to kind of elevate himself as what nearly looked like a cult leader. (The box was the same shape as a good-sized monitor speaker but was visibly hollow.) The band was really in to it all, too. The flutist ran around, danced, and sang whenever she wasn't playing. On one song, she played a melodica, but when finished with it mid-song, she just tossed it up fifteen feet in the area to someone off-stage. The harpist and cellist rocked their instruments back and forth vigorously. The choir danced their hearts out. It must be hard not to have a good time when this band comes together.
I was a bit disappointed when after just barely over an hour into the show DeLaughter said they were about to play their last song. The song was even more upbeat and dramatic, even a bit anthemic. It ended by continually repeating a long segment while bandmembers one by one got up, waved, and ran off stage. It ended with just the harpist playing, which was a nice conclusion.
I knew there'd be an encore, but I wasn't expected what I got: the band came through the front doors of the venue, walked through the crowd, and climbed on stage. Now they were all wearing white robes, apparently the traditional garb of the band (see the above album cover). The encore lasted well over an hour, making it a bit longer than the actual set was. The band would play a song or two, and DeLaughter would say something like, "Should we keep going? Come on, it's Saturday night! Let's do another!", and sure enough, they would.
Things only got crazier during the encore. DeLaughter's son came out and just kind of hung out on stage for the whole encore. He suggested songs now and then and at one point told a story about buying the mask he sometimes wore. He had a drummer-boy sort of drum that he would sometimes play (right in rhythm), but he mostly just kind of walked around. I still didn't recognize any of the songs except for one. DeLaughter started talking about audience participation and excitement, and partway through his talking, one of the guitarists started playing a strangely familiar riff. When DeLaughter was ready, the band launched into a fully-arranged version of Nirvana's "Lithium". It was awesome. (Better than Patti Smith's cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on her latest album.)
During another song, the entire band except for DeLaughter (and his son) froze, and stayed frozen for a good three minutes (at least). One of the keyboardists stayed frozen with his hands playing a synthy chord, but all the while DeLaughter walked around, moved the string-players' arms to bow their instruments, played the keyboard upside-down, strummed one of the guitars a bit, and then sang some words before the band finally came back in. I was hoping they'd do something really big, but they just kind of did a little thing before halting briefly and then starting what sounded like a different song.
The band was only all the more excited and enthusiastic during the encore. Not only were the guitarists and horn-players joining the singer and flutist in running around on-stage, but the violinist and cellist did too. The violinist would jump up and down really excitedly at times, but the cellist really cracked me up. She was fairly short, but she somehow managed to pick up her cello and walk around while still playing. I was impressed.
The band just kept on going and must have endless reserves of energy. The music was all so bright and positive, and although those sounds like potentially dangerous adjectives, I assure – this was good stuff. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a great show. This was a fantastic introduction to the band.
P.S. If that wasn't enough, check out my friend Gabe's review at Playback STL. [Edit 2019.11.14: archived link.]