Live Music: The Polyphonic Spree, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, 4/3/12

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

The Polyphonic Spree have only released three full-length studio albums in the 12 years since their inception, but I don’t think that relatively limited output has in any way impeded their exposure as a band. For the Polyphonic Spree, it’s all about the live show. A (to date) 16-piece group from Dallas, they aren’t often on the road. It’s hard for me to even wrap my head around the sheer logistics of touring with that many people. Where do they sleep? How do they pay for it? How many cars are in the caravan? These questions and others went through my mind on Tuesday night when they played San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, but before too long I stopped wondering and just sat back and let the symphonic psychedelic noise hit me in the face.

These guys and gals, all 16 of them, are loud. And theatrical. Well before they even struck a note, they began to flood the stage with smoke, thickly wafting above the big red curtain they stretched from end-to-end to block the audience’s eyes from their set-up. Soon enough (well, actually not soon enough, the set break between opener, experimental one-man New Fumes, seemed to take forever), band leader Tim DeLaughter cut a heart shape into the curtain, the opening through which we saw a mimicking red heart on his long white robe. A little cutesy? Yes. A bit too whimsical? Yes. The first song was all in your face enthusiasm, with the whole band yelling at us and each other the repetitive words to “Section 14: 2000 Places” from their 2004 album Together We’re Heavy. (You gotta be good, you gotta be strong / You gotta be 2000 places at once.) But soon enough, even in my cynical Tuesday night state, I couldn’t deny the outright bliss DeLaughter and his disciples were projecting from the stage.

The ecstasy in the room was fired by not only the band but also the company I was keeping, the anonymous show-goers among me. There were more than a few people, mostly dudes, in the audience who were hanging onto their words and shouting along with arms raised like rapturous born again members of a fanciful lost religion. And there’s something fascinating, if not infectious, about watching a band perform to fans who are absolutely going batshit over what they’re serving up, which musically I sort of liken to a cross between the Flaming Lips, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and a Baptist choir. They did a cover of “We’re Not Going to Take It” and “Pinball Wizard” that were pretty excellent, and that effectively marked the moment when I could feel myself converting. (I mean, it’s the Who delivered by a somewhat insane 16-person indie rock gospel choir, all in long white robes, blasted well past normal decibel levels at a bunch of flailing weirdos. How can that not be at least somewhat awesome?)

So soon enough, I came around to the spectacle that is the Polyphonic Spree. Bouncing around maddeningly and utterly in love with the act of performing a concert for us, the band (which included a five-piece all-girl backup choir, a xylophone player, a flutist, sax player, guitarist, and a bassist and cellist perched atop either side of the group flanking them from above like psychedelic celestial beings) brought a maniacal, undeniable enthusiasm to that room. It was kinda nutty. Are they high? In a cult? Simply pretending? Is it real?

But who really cares? Even with the crazy dude behind me whistling and muttering like a god loving hippie on PCP, I didn’t get annoyed or distracted by him. Rather, he was part of the experience, as a member of the congregation just as essential to the show as the musicians were. When DeLaughter lifted his hands, his parishioners lifted them in response, a visible display of that undeniable transfer of ecstatic energy. By the end of the show, I didn’t fucking care about the band’s catalog or the fact that I probably wouldn’t listen to them at home. I was a convert to the religious fervor they were delivering on stage. If they hit your town and you have never seen them, I encourage you to follow the herd and check out where the noise is coming from.  Whether you love or loathe this kind of thing, the Polyphonic Spree is an experience to behold.