Better Than: Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, if they were real people and not puppets made out of felt and hallucinogenic properties.
So, I was pretty pissed that I skipped Polyphonic Spree at Bonnaroo, because I was curious as hell as to how Tim DeLaughter and company were going to perform The Rocky Horror Show for a giant tent packed with people rolling on Molly for the first time. Dude’s voice is spectacular; dude’s band is just as wonderful; dude’s theatricality would make a Rocky take the stuff of legend, especially in a festival setting. Last night at the Bowery Ballroom, they didn’t whip out “Sweet Transvestite” or a bunch of ill-fitting corsets, but they did offer fans a sneak peek at “Popular By Design” and a few other songs from their upcoming record, which’ll be the band (sorry, small orchestra’s) first proper record since 2007’s The Fragile Army. (I’m not counting that Christmas album in 2012. Christmas albums don’t count.)
From the moment they hit their places onstage in matching psychedelically-printed, bell-sleeved tunics to the insanity that exploded with their closing cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Polyphonic Spree did what we’ve expected them to do: put on a great show and play well while simultaneously freaking us the fuck out. It’s unsettling for people to be that happy! It’s not normal for people to smile that much when they’re just sitting at a harp and not playing it when everybody else around them gets to bang the shit out of their instruments! It’s just not rock n’ roll, man! But it is, in that the Polyphonic Spree live show delivers empowering, can’t-help-but-belt-along-to-it verse after each infectious, can’t-get-this-out-of-your-head-without-pliers chorus. There’s a reason why people continue to come to see them. Part of it’s the spectacle of watching a small army of trumpet-wielding people try to fit on the sticky stage of a rock club. Part of it’s taking bets on what weird outfit they’re going to coordinate next. But most of it goes back to the music itself, and its sun-soaked vibes work their way under your skin on even the gloomiest of days–and that insatiable positivity coupled with their always-stellar performance explains why they’re still relevant in 2013.
Oh, and the Muppet comparison? At one point during “2,000 Places” the horn section were so giddy with joy they were just standing there, rocking back and forth and bumping into each other, billboard-sized smiles plastered across their glistening faces before they remembered where they were and got back to brassing out on some high notes. The guy next to them on the harp didn’t have a part to play for that particular song, so he sat there, happy as a clam, rocking back and forth in solidarity and singing his bursting-at-the-seams heart out. If you can find a scene in real life that mimics The Great Muppet Caper better than of a bunch of grown dudes in giant tunics unironically enjoying the absolute insanity enveloping the room around them, I will tattoo Miss Piggy in a Polyphonic Spree robe on my left ass cheek.
Critical Bias: I am a recovering musical theatre kid, meaning my parents had the sense to forbid me from quitting 11th grade to run off and audition for the national tour of Hairspray, but I still know how to play “One Song Glory” on the guitar because I was the coolest 16-year-old ever. I value presentation, thought, choreography and deliberate, sensational showmanship as a result, and DeLaughter’s dedication to all those things elevates Polyphonic Spree’s live show from an elaborate rock n’ roll symphony orchestra to an inimitable tour-de-force that overwhelms as much as it inspires–and that’s kind of the point. They’re incredibly loud and the jacket/bonkers light set-up/weird coordination and overzealous smiling may set you up for one of the strangest live music scenarios you’ll ever experience, but it’s an experience, and one with a beautifully executed soundtrack that forces you to marvel at how many moving parts are synching so perfectly right before your very eyes.
Random notebook dump: “New stuff = SPACE!” So, the visual cues were helpful: instead of the explosion of rainbows washing the stage with light, the new songs off of Polyphonic Spree’s forthcoming record received the galactic treatment. The lights went low, lasers started beaming out all over the place, starry strobes did their thing and the new stuff–with a sonic aesthetic to match the Planetarium-worthy spectacle unfolding before us–took us on a bit of a time warp. Instead of bringing us back to the early Aughts with the Polyphonic Spree songs we’ve known and loved/scratched our heads over, we were beamed up to the future, where synths and soundboards are favored just as heavily as trumpets and cellos and harps.
Overheard: “Pop goes the Weasel.” 10+ to one of the 912 trumpeters employed by the Polyphonic Spree who thought to do a sad, weebly little “POP!” when someone in the crowd stomped on a balloon. Given that these guys hand out giant white balloons to their audience members and require them to blow them up I’m sure the opportunity’s presented itself before, but still, comedic timing #FTW.
Also, #benwillwin: Before ripping it open and emerging from it with a swelling din behind him, DeLaughter tagged “#BENWILLWIN!” on a giant white sheet that had been rigged before the lights went down. The hashtag refers to School of Seven Bells’ Ben Curtis, who the band has been actively raising funds for since he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. DeLaughter closed the night by bringing up Curtis’ treatment again, urging folks to use the hashtag, raise awareness and donate if they can. Cancer’s a horrible, expensive bitch. You know what’s not? Empathy, kindness and the kind of support that spans across stages as a community uses its powers for good to help out a friend in need.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 11, 2013