Over a decade after they first emerged from Texas in all their wide-eyed, blissed out glory, tonight’s impressively large crowd at east London’s cavernous Village Underground suggests that there’s still a place in many people’s hearts for The Polyphonic Spree, surely the world’s only “choral symphonic pop rock band”.
Since the euphoric early high of their debut album The Beginning Stages Of… The Polyphonic Spree, fortunes have been mixed for this freewheeling collective of musicians and singers, with indifferent sales and record label difficulties as well as lucrative soundtracks for everyone from Sainsbury’s to New York Fashion Week. Yet despite having to plea (successfully) to fans to help them raise enough money to fund the recording and release of their new album Yes, It’s True, the Spree are back on the road again and remain the nearest thing the modern world has to a revival of the musical Godspell.
Although pared down from their original 28-strong line up to a more modest 14, Tim DeLaughter and his merry band of assorted brass players, violinists, singers and a more conventional guitar-bass-drums unit still make for quite a spectacle. The show started with the four female backing vocalists, clad in flowing white robes like pagan sacrificial offerings, swaying and chanting above a growing swell of noise before the rest of the band were suddenly revealed from behind a giant sheet bearing the handmade slogan “We Are Friends”. Now in command of the stage, DeLaughter opened the set proper with Hold Me Now, a typically rousing Spree anthem that set the tone for a gig which offered a good balance of old favourites and new material.
The songs from Yes, It’s True seem to signal a shift in direction for the band towards a slightly more conventional style, with the influence of fellow American mavericks The Flaming Lips very apparent on the likes of You Don’t Know Me and Hold Yourself Up. DeLaughter himself remains as eccentric a front man as ever, sporting a dazzlingly colourful flowery shirt and entertaining the audience with his usual bizarre combination of robotic dancing, messianic hand gestures and peace and love pronouncements. But it’s only when the early Spree favourites are unleashed that the faithful finally reach a frenzy.
A deliriously passionate Two Thousand Places, perhaps their catchiest composition of all, gets everyone singing along before debut album classics Light And Day and Soldier Girl are performed to rapturous acclaim in the final stages of the show. Unsubtle and simple they might be, but that these songs have an irresistible momentum and addictive feel good factor is undeniable. A Polyphonic Spree show is sometimes more like a religious experience than a mere concert, creating an atmosphere they have never quite emulated in the studio, where their lack of variety and substance often counts against them.
The performance finished with a suitable raucous cover version of Nirvana’s Lithium, which suits the Spree dynamic rather well, with one fan clambering on stage to hug DeLaughter in a display of unadulterated devotion. Not everyone will fall for the Polyphonic Spree quite so completely, but they remain a unique live act and only the most curmudgeonly of listeners would argue that they don’t do their bit to make the world a slightly happier place.