It should be a no-brainer that live music fans would come out to see a sixteen-piece white-robed bright pop ensemble, simply for the spectacle. I guessed the crowd would be a gathering of Bonnaroo- and Wakarusa-attending college kids there to catch a whiff of impending warm-weather festival euphoria. Needless to say, the crowd for Wednesday's Polyphonic Spree set was thinner than expected — there was only one presiding hula hippie and she pretty much dropped the ball twenty minutes into the show.
As much childlike fun as PS can be, with its orchestral balladeering glam-rock arrangements reimagined for the hippie set — it's also totally overwhelming. Multiple songs segue from one to the next with long passages of ambient looped flute noise and other dissonant effects, like new age music. I admit there was an entire left wing of the stage that I fully neglected to watch, and that's where the violin and cello (my favorites!) were located, as well as an additional percussionist helming such wonders as chimes and a bell lyre. The band's layout was confusing — the flutist and a guy alternating between trumpet and a mixing console were practically front and center. The four-girl back-up chorus was elevated at the rear of the stage beneath the band's flag. They were cute but their Supremes-esque choreography was so unwavering and robotic it ultimately gave me the creeps.
As the show endures, it becomes very clear that this entire project is very much frontman Tim DeLaughtner's baby. He is enjoyably manic, jumping around, taking one knee to direct his choir, or leaping on top of the bass drum. In fact, he's the only person not confined to an instrument, or several, and free to wander the stage, the audience, and the (presently occupied) piano bench, if desired. While this can be charming at times, the identical robes (this time with sweet giant heart patches on the tummy, like a bunch of Care Bears) and sanity-breaching enthusiasm exhibited by the band give DeLaughtner this mystique of a benevolent dictator, or militant choir director — one can pretty easily imagine him in rehearsal, rapping the wrists of bandmembers who fail to demonstrate proper ardor. This stranglehold over the ensemble was most eerily demonstrated during a masterful encore in which the band remained frozen for several minutes (even down to their facial expressions) while DeLaughtner roamed the stage picking at their instruments and pantomime-punching several of the male members in the groin, fully expecting them not to flinch or smirk.
But it is, ultimately, a project of love. Their theatrical encores are worth the ticket price alone (steep; I know) — one song required a capella audience participation that earned warm reception from DeLaughtner and a comment, "Where have you guys been all night?" It's true, the crowd seemed more bumfuzzled by most of the set than willfully exuberant. And we can only imagine how disappointed that might make DeLaughtner feel.
At the finale, the entire band stood downstage with their arms around each other, beaming and panting. DeLaughtner kindly related that one of the young members was from Arkansas, and his family was in the audience, cheering him on. Then he flashed peace signs and told us all to be safe getting home. After all the rock-opera encoring, even such thoughtfulness felt a little anticlimactic.
All photos and video by Cheree Franco.
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