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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Polyphonic Spree @ Turner Hall Ballroom

May 15, 2012

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While going above and beyond the call of duty has its perks, it can also be really exhausting to watch someone do it. For about an hour Tuesday night, The Polyphonic Spree treated a half-full Turner Hall Ballroom to the more spectacular elements of its over-the-top live show, pulling out every trick in the book—an eye-popping lights display, an impromptu T-shirt toss, and lots of confetti—and then repeated those tricks ad nauseum for another half hour or so, each member finally exiting the stage individually until only lead singer and maestro Tim DeLaughter remained to conduct the audience in a culminating a capella sing-along. It should have felt gut-wrenching and uplifting, but after a total of three confetti blasts, countless pleas for the audience to sing and clap along, and an endless pattern of breakdowns and build-ups, DeLaughter had perhaps overstayed his very warm welcome by making it nearly impossible to one-up himself.

That the band fully indulged itself and its audience at every turn of a nearly two-hour set should not be surprising. The Polyphonic Spree is known for wearing its heart on its sleeve (or more literally, in this case) its chest: Each member wore a matching white robe embroidered with a big red heart. The robes, dreamed up by DeLaughter as a way to avoid the visual distraction of fourteen people onstage in street clothes, have become the band's most distinguishing feature. That, and its small army of musicians, uplifting, highly-orchestrated anthems, and theatrical live shows. DeLaughter and co. take the audio-visual blueprint of a Broadway musical and lay it on top of a rock concert, with sometimes breathtaking results. Before the group even appeared, a red cloth banner was stretched across the length of the stage by a stringy-haired Spree assistant (most likely the one responsible for all the well-timed confetti, he could be spotted throughout the set running back and forth with a flashlight, tinkering with lights and cables), a simple touch that injected a dose of suspense into the somewhat sluggish Tuesday night crowd. Behind the banner, out of sight of the audience, the band took the stage and began to play, while a disembodied scissors carved the shape of a heart into the banner, revealing the grinning, child-like face of DeLaughter. When the banner finally fell away like a finish line ribbon, it exposed the entire band, decked out in uniform and accompanied by a stunning explosion of color, lights, and sound. Moments like these are the Spree's bread and butter, and the genuine gumption with which they're executed is part of what makes the band's live show truly memorable.

Such a conspicuous entrance might seem like a tough act to follow, but the Spree's ability to rise to the occasion was never in doubt. It thundered through a selection of its three-LP catalog with infrequent stops, sometimes melting two or three songs together. These included a seamless medley of The Who's "See Me Feel Me" and "Pinball Wizard," the highlight of the set and an appropriate nod to a fellow theatrically-minded band. Other high points were "Two Thousand Places," "Soldier Girl," and "Light and Day." After leaving the stage, the band re-entered the room through the rear doors for its encore, triumphantly slapping high-fives with the audience before climbing back onstage for another handful of songs. They finally closed with "Championship," the aforementioned sing-along, and a gracious invitation from DeLaughter to visit the merch booth. With 14-plus mouths to feed, you can hardly blame the guy.

A quintessential "must-see live" band, The Polyphonic Spree certainly sounded better in the flesh Tuesday than it ever has on record. And while it eschewed the strategy that less is more—truthfully, less isn't even in their playbook—the band put on a hell of a show by pulling out all the stops. For better or for worse, more is more in the universe of The Polyphonic Spree. And when the confetti finally settled, the tired crowd filing out of Turner Hall seemed satisfied with that.

Photo by Erik Ljung