The Polyphonic Spree: Live From Austin, TX

The Polyphonic Spree - Live from Austin,TXSynopsis: Through all the years of Austin City Limits, there probably has never been a night quite like this. From the opening processional through the crowd, through the harp solos, cymbal crashes and rousing choruses, the many members of Polyphonic Spree, all wearing their floor-length choir robes of every color in the rainbow, lifted the show to new heights on that sultry night in August, 2004.

Available for the first time ever, the Live From Austin, Texas concert series features previously unreleased performances from the award winning Austin City Limits television show.

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The Polyphonic Spree: Live From Austin, TX 8.5

eyelights: the manic exuberance of the performance. the infectious, uplifting music. the coordination of this massive, seemingly chaotic band.
eyesores: the indistinguishability of some tracks.

“From the beginning, my idea of this band was a vision of sound, and what’s come out of it is so much more spectacular and dramatic” – Tim DeLaughter

The Polyphonic Spree are a quirky choir pop-rock band from Dallas, Texas, that was formed by Tim DeLaughter in 2000 after the demise of his former group, Tripping Daisy. Although I had seen some of their CDs in stores, I first heard the band when I picked up an album called ‘Nightmare Revisited’, which is a cover album of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’.

The album was a revelation. As much as I like the motion picture, I hate the fact that the songs are all done in a musical style. Hearing all the songs presented chronologically, but in a variety of genres, highlighted just how terrific Danny Elfman’s compositions were. It’s a disc that I play regularly around the holiday season – much more than the actual soundtrack.

I simply adore that album. And The Polyphonic Spree are by far the best of the lot.

The track that they chose to perform was ‘Town Meeting Song”, which had the band members take up the various character roles for the duration of this epic, 9-minute number. The arrangements were fantastic, the performance breathtaking, and the song was brought to renewed life! I just had to find out more about this group, and I sought them out.

The first thing I stumbled upon was ‘The Fragile Army’, their then-most recent album. It came with a bonus DVD, so I decided to take the plunge. Aside for one track, the playful “Mental Cabaret”, it didn’t do much for me. But I was undaunted: when I found ‘Together We’re Heavy’, their previous album, with a DVD-audio disc, I decided to give them another chance.

That’s when my love affair with The Polyphonic Spree began in full force.

I fell hard for their multi-layered arrangements, which finds their music nestled somewhere in the range of a choir and an orchestra performing psychedelic rock music. There is so much going on in each track (hardly surprising, since the band regular consists of well over a dozen people) that each moment is pure ear candy for anyone who likes textures in their music.

Especially on their amazing DVD-audio disc for ‘Together We’re Heavy’, which increases the dynamic range and adds surround effects. Yum!

I also found their messages and energy, which is earnestly positive without being trite, verily refreshing; they give off a hippy-esque vibe that I rather enjoy, but it’s served up with such exuberance that it’s totally infectious. I ended up turning to The Polyphonic Spree to start my days on the right foot, or to perk me up when I felt a bit low; they’re adrenaline for the soul.

This coming from a cynical goth/metal/industrial type, I might add.

I listened to ‘Together We’re Heavy’ incessantly for weeks on end, sought out various versions of their previous effort, ‘The Beginning Stages of…’, CD singles and even soundtrack and compilation appearances. In a town whose local record shops are vanishing at a distressing rate, there were limited options to satiate my cravings. But I did what I could.

In recent months, I stumbled upon a copy of the band’s August 3, 2004, performance at Austin City Limits, in Austin, TX. Recorded at Studio 6A in the Communications Building B, on the University of Texas at Austin campus, PBS’ ‘Austin City Limits’ is the longest-running music series in American television history, its first broadcast being in October of 1974.

The set-up is a medium-sized stage with a backdrop of a darkened cityscape (presumably Austin, TX), with all the buildings lit up. There is a crowd of approximately 300 people (the venue has an 800-person capacity, but it’s reduced due to fire exit access) who are seated in stands in front and to either side of the stage, providing the illusion of a packed venue.

The programme begins with the band being introduced, after which a long beeline of about two dozen musicians (vocals, pedal steel, flute, guitar, Theremin, organ, piano, trumpet, violin, bass, classical harp, trombone, French horn, percussion, trap kit, and 8-piece choir.) in colourful robes make their way to the stage. This crowded stage is quite a sight.

For the show, Tim DeLaughter has a white, Lego-like angled platform at the front of the stage, that he could run up, raising him two feet above the rest of the band, allowing him to take his place as frontman in a sea of frenzied bodies. He used it frequently and to great effect when he wasn’t lost in a blissful state, savouring these glorious musical moments.

The rest of the band were equally immersed in the majesty of their own creation, each moving to the beat of their own drum, turning the stage into a sea of cultish energy, with many hopping in place, spinning, playing multiple instruments at once, …etc. The choir were particularly vibrant, whipping in different directions at all times, like mad cheerleaders.

And yet, all of this is obviously coordinated, or else the players would bump into each other, play out of place, …etc. It’s essentially controlled chaos, with the band taking pauses at specific times for dramatic effect, sometimes even freezing like statues. How DeLaughter managed to orchestrate this whole spectacle is beyond me; it’s absolutely mind-boggling.

But he did much more than that: he also managed to compose all of these songs, fold all of their layers together into rich compositions. Certainly he had help from his many musical collaborators, but there’s some insane genius at work here: the music he created was infectious, possessing me. Of course, this is The Polyphonic Spree at what may be their peak.

And I’m biased. 😉

It’s very hard for me to describe the show in musical terms because this band delivers a genre that’s hard to define for anyone who isn’t a musician. In effect, it’s just better to sit back and enjoy the show than to try to explain it. For the most part, the songs wove into one another effortlessly, transforming the set into one huge mellifluous composition. Brilliant!

1. Bizarre Prayer 8.0
2. Section 11: Long Day Continues / We Sound Amazed 8.5
3. Section 2: It’s the Sun 8.0
4. Section 12: Hold Me Now 8.0
5. Section 6 and 7: Hanging Around the Day, Part 1 & 2 8.25
6. Section: 14:Two Thousand Places 8.5
7. Section 16: One Man Show 8.25
8. Section 18: Everything Starts at the Seam 8.5
9. Section 19: When the Fool Becomes a King 8.5

At the end, Tim thanked the audience (he only addressed it once before, taking the time to wish “Becky, Chris’ mom”, a happy birthday) and they all took a bow at once before leaving the stage. Although the show was a little less than an hour long, it was a full course meal; honestly, I’m not sure that I could have handled a concert of such potency much longer.

This show basically renewed not just my faith in The Polyphonic Spree (who were dreadfully silent for many years after ‘The Fragile Army’), but my enthusiasm for their music; this show is everything that I love about them. And although the performances are not as slick as the studio versions, it’s as good as it’s ever going to get when you have a huge party on stage.

I will pursue every bits and bites of their music that I don’t have with a resurrected fervour; I really want to capture every bit of ear candy that they have to offer. I was so enthused after the show, that the first thing I did was to give ‘The Fragile Army’ another listen; it was my favourite listen ever. Wow. I suspect that I’ll be spinning this DVD often in the weeks to come.

I want more of that magic.

Date of viewing: April 13, 2015

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