Photo: Super Dee
The keyboardist takes his place on the stage and begins to summon the troupe to its performance. Individuals in white robes run from all corners of the room and fit themselves on the stage like a jigsaw puzzle, as they become one sardine-packed entity before the audience. This was the scene at the Great American Music Hall on April 24, 2003, as The Polyphonic Spree began its debut performance in San Francisco, playing to a full-capacity room on its first tour out of the state of Texas.

Our first introduction to The Polyphonic Spree came in when our guy on the inside at last year’s SXSW [Music Conference and Festival in Austin, TX] told us, “If you see one thing this week, see The Polyphonic Spree.” We took his advice and our idea of how music can affect your outlook on life has never been the same. The Polyphonic Spree can make it seem like anything in the world is possible through its brand of contagious inspiration.

Here are the ingredients: a 25 person group made up of a seven person chorus, one theremin [more info], two keyboards, one flute, one trombone, one trumpet, one bass, one violin, one guitar, one harp, one percussionist, one french horn, (one clapper), and one man leading the whole entourage, conducting everyone with an incredible stage presence and a clearly amazing vision. Tim DeLaughter, former lead singer for Tripping Daisy, had an idea for a group. He even had the name of the group before bringing everyone together in Dallas in early 2001.

We had the opportunity to speak to three of the Spree at the Coachella Music Festival – one of many stops this summer on the way to making The Polyphonic Spree a household name. We wanted some insight into how such a large group of people can blend together to create such a hopeful and powerful force, so we asked Mark Pirro (a founding member and current bassist), Jesse Hester (piano and vocals) and Jennifer Jobe (lead vocalist in the choir).

Photo: Super Dee
Tim's idea was of a “multisonic extravaganza” - a core band, a choir, a horn section. It started with 13 people and then evolved to more than twenty. With so many noises and voices, they offer the audience a lot of energy. Mark told us that it’s like a big energy ball that they pass back and forth with the crowd, and the velocity increases so much until the entire room is swept up in it. Sure, they can have an off night, but on a good night, every person truly present can’t help but get involved in what is happening. The positive energy feels so real! There weren’t enough microphones at the Great American for everyone to have their own vocal mix, yet every single person in the band was singing with such a fervor, a true passion for the simple positive phrases, you can look at any one of them and catch it.

And what are they singing about? Oh, regular hum drum things like the sun, trying hard, and being good – that sort of thing. But with such excitement!

“Have a day! Celebrate! Soon, you’ll find the answer!”

“Follow the day and reach for the sun!”

“You gotta be good! You gotta be strong!”

The Polyphonic Spree sing feel-good music in a time when people like us need it most.

With long flowing robes and a seemingly religious fervor about them, many people at first glance will think this is a cult worshipping… something. We carefully asked them what they might be worshipping if they were indeed a cult (hoping that they wouldn’t start lecturing us on the benefits of dedicating your life to Christ). Jesse said emphatically, “Nothing.” Mark explains that there is not one common spiritual path that everyone in the band shares. While some or all may be individually spiritual in their own way, the common thread is the desire to motivate people and make them feel good. They are there to entertain and embrace the music. They would like to start, “an epidemic of positivity.” Mark adds, “We challenge people to be vulnerable. Everyone is jumping up and down and chanting together about peace and happiness and it liberates us on stage and those in the crowd.”

So how does a 25-person ensemble go on the road? In just one tour bus, they tell us proudly. Besides the band members, they travel with a road manager, a merchandise person, a sound man, and the band is its own crew. “We’re like our own little army,” Mark says. The two options while riding on the bus are either lying down in your bunk or standing straight up. While this may sound like torture, the Spree seem to enjoy it. Jennifer tells us that she would like to continue to ride in one bus, all together, as their career progresses.

“Do you want to be in The Polyphonic Spree?” asks Tim Delaughter from the main stage at Coachella during the band’s afternoon set. Besides being able to purchase one of their flowing white robes with colored satin footer, we suspect that to become a member, you just have to help spread a motivated and positive feeling. You too can wake up in the morning and reach for the sun and feel inspired to start a brand new day.

If you listen to Tripping Daisy, on their album Bill, you can hear some of the sound that would become The Polyphonic Spree, specifically on “The Morning.” [Listen to Bill through JamBaseRhapsody.]

Photo: Super Dee
“The Polyphonic Spree has been like a domino effect,” says Pirro. Once they set up this elaborate board of players, things started to fall into place. “The first domino was our first SXSW, then the press started to catch wind of us.” The next domino was Europe, as their rock opera sound went over so well with the Brits. They played David Bowie’s Meltdown festival and then the big Reading festival and then Tea in the Park. Before long, they were all over NME, BBC, and multiple articles in the Guardian UK. All the dominoes continue to fall with tremendous word of mouth.

If you can listen with open mind and heart, you can get swept away by the infectious happiness and forceful positivity. By the end of the show, they have motivated us to break a sweat and pump our fists in the air and jump up and down, reaching higher and higher for the sun. And we leave as evangelists, and pass the word. Go see The Polyphonic Spree. They’ll make you happy.

Ted Kartzman and Deanne Herman
JamBase | West Coast
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 5/21/03]

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