- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Watching the Polyphonic Spree walk onstage is a little like watching a magician pull an endless stream of scarves from a hat. Where are they all coming from?

How are they all going to fit on the same stage?

How often do they dry-clean those white robes?

This 23-member Dallas-based “choral symphonic pop band” — there’s no -tet word for that many people, is there? — did something extraordinary Tuesday night, in its first-ever performsolo on classical harp, a bulky, dainty-sounding instrument rarely seen outside high-art concert halls, cocktail parties or Irish pubs, it turned the gritty 9:30 Club into the tony Kennedy Center.

Everyone applauded rapturously.

“We’re the Polyphonic Spree, from America,” said lead singer and choirmaster Tim DeLaughter, a secular whirling dervish in Chuck Taylor high-tops, as his merry company left the stage.

Spree may be from the American heartland, but it sounds like a happy-scrappy English pop band from the late ‘60s on its way through the sound barrier.

Think of the Beatles without John Lennon’s acerbity and add eight choir singers, a brass section and a percussionist mallet-pounding a timpani.

If Alan Greenspan thought the mid-‘90s stock-buying spree was irrationally exuberant, the Fed chairman would be at a loss for words upon seeing this Spree.

The singers and musicians practically wipe your face in bliss; they seem as if they would be inclined to jump offstage and physically fish-hook a smile out of your face if they weren’t so caught up in their own euphoria.

The post-angst lyrics never stray far from the band’s bread-and-butter themes of sunshine and renewal.

“Celebrate/ Have a day/ Soon you’ll find the answer,” Spree sings, including the instrumentalists without microphones, who bellow along as if part of the audience.

“Good day tonight/ ‘cause everybody feels all right/ Good times will start for you/ think it was the Fourth of July. … Love the life you choose/ Keep yourself feeling brand new.”

On its debut album, “The Beginning Stages of …,” the Polyphonic Spree divides its songs into 10 unnamed “sections.” With the exception of the last number, a 35-plus minute monastic chant, they’re all pretty much of a piece.

“Stages” is one prolonged smiley face of a concept song.

Spree’s white-frock stage get-ups may look like the result of a raid on a church sacristy, but theirs is an ecumenical good cheer: There’s no mention of God, only of sunshine and daylight and other Prozacy notions of happiness and contentment.

This would all be too hokey if the Polyphonic Spree weren’t so darn competent.

With each live rendition, the band takes a few minutes to warm up. Mr. DeLaughter will twirl and bounce, inciting Spree-ites to kick up the intensity meter. The white stage lights crank up in tandem and then: Bah-da bah-da-da-da!

It’s a twinkly Beach Boy harmony sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in an airplane hangar.

Capping the moment and riding the crescendo, Mr. DeLaughter jumps on top of a stage monitor, making campy Freddie Mercury gestures and encouraging the audience to join the ecstatic bursts of joy.

In Spree’s engine room are three musicians who anchor the whole sound — an electric bass player (who’s far more audible than his counterpart on upright acoustic bass), a rock drummer and a young guitarist with an array of digital effects at his feet.

The electric six-stringer had to battle for sonic room with a woman making flying-saucer noises on a theremin synthesizer and a pedal-steel guitarist.

This kind of instrumentation never could have been assembled by design; on paper, it would seem like a disaster in the making.

A sane sound engineer would say, with some justification, “How do you expect me to mix this cacophony?”

Come to think of it, feedback was a persistent problem Tuesday night, but hardly anyone noticed. Everybody was too busy getting their happy groove on.

By the show’s finale, a couple Spree members literally were rolling on the floor, hopped up on happiness.

Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Only the most hard-bitten, eye-rolling cynic could deny the value of the Polyphonic Spree.

As Bruce Springsteen declares on “Badlands,” “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Spree is glad to be alive, and when the band hits its stride onstage, the audience is, too.

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