This fall The Polyphonic Spree is celebrating the 15th anniversary of their debut, “The Beginning Stages of …”, with a tour of Europe and North America. The Dallas, Texas band formed in July 2000, born from the sparkling mind of lead vocalist Tim DeLaughter. DeLaughter and his band — a group of about 20 musicians — are currently on tour and performing their entire debut along with other originals and a few surprises. Coming off their stint in Europe, they stopped in Little Rock with a blazing performance at Stickyz Tuesday night.
DeLaughter has been through quite a lot since I first met him as front-man of the band Tripping Daisy at Vino’s in the early ’90s. I was impressed then with the energy and effort of their stage show. The music was good, too, and had more of a psychedelic feel than the grungier stuff that was popular at that time. They even projected an oil and water color light show onto a white backdrop, giving it that classic ’60s psychedelic look. Tim had these piercing blue eyes, a Cheshire Cat smile and was wearing a T-shirt with a Pepsi logo on it, but with the word Sperm instead of Pepsi. I immediately connected with him and his guitarist, Wes Berggren. They were headed straight for the top it seemed, and soon went from an independent label to Island Records. Their music video “I Got a Girl” got some play on MTV.
The band ended abruptly with the tragic death of Berggren in his Dallas apartment in October 1999, not long after their final show in Little Rock at the old Juanita’s. That show was kind of magical, larger than life. The sound was great and the band was tighter and more energetic than ever. The light show and glam costumes were over-the-top. Wes’ death hit everyone hard. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Tim, having played and toured with him for almost a decade. There’s this closeness band members get that’s hard to describe after spending that much together, on the road for several years. From those ashes — or embers — came the formation of The Polyphonic Spree in 2000. Maybe it was therapeutic for Tim and the other band members, dealing with the loss of a close friend. Their first show as The Polyphonic Spree was a 30 minute set in Dallas with just 12 members, but with all of them already wearing their signature choir robes. They played with the bands Granddaddy and Bright Eyes. Soon after, twelve more members were added to the band and Tim recorded “The Beginning Stages of…” They’ve since had their songs featured in commercials, TV shows and have even opened for David Bowie on his Reality Tour. They’ve released four LPs now and have been on soundtracks for the movies “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Thumbsucker,” “The Lorax” and more. More than 70 musicians have been in the band over the years, and there are currently 20 active members, including Tripping Daisy bassist Mark Pirro. Annie Clark – better known by her stage name St. Vincent – was their guitarist at one point.
Stickyz was packed by the time The Polyphonic Spree started setting up. As advertised, they played their entire first album before taking a short intermission. I counted 19 members on stage. The sound filled the room like a choir revival. Imagine a psychedelic “Jesus Christ Superstar,” or “The Wall”-era Pink Floyd — that was the vibe. DeLaughter doesn’t seem to have aged much, and took the lead as the director of this weird symphony of hope. He had pink-purple spiked bleached hair, somewhat like like cotton candy, and wore a white choir robe trimmed with purple silk and matching Vans shoes. Even the non-singing members of the band sang along. There were beautiful female back-up singers, a horn section, a harp player, a keyboardist, a cellist, two guitarists, a drummer and more.
Their drummer, Jason Garner, played an elaborate double bass drum kit, picking up where Ginger Baker and John Bonham left off. For the second half of the show they changed from their white choir robes into a shiny top, like something a guru would be wearing while you tripped on mushrooms. They played songs off their other albums and a couple of covers. The first cover song was a deep cut, The Monkees’ “The Porpoise Song,” and the second was Nirvana’s “Lithium.” For their last few songs, Tim sang through a weird copper microphone. I later discovered it was invented by their bass player, Mark Pirro, and is called a “Copperphone.” It’s been used by artists like Green Day, Lou Barlow, Jack White and more. It gives the vocalist a vintage AM radio / carnival barker sound. The entire show was amazing and I felt sorry for people who weren’t there.
The band’s latest record is 2013 “Yes, it’s True,” and it’s terrific.Their two-month tour will continue by wrapping around North America and will conclude December 12 with a “Holiday Extravaganza” show at the Majestic Theater in their home base of Dallas.