- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

“I think we’re clearly one of the best live bands in the world right now. There’s nothing like this, what we’re doing,” says Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree. The 24 robed members of the “choral symphonic pop” band crowd onto the 9:30 Club stage Monday.

Apparently, he’s not alone: It’s hard to find a Spree review without the word “transcendent” in it. The “Jesus Christ Superstar” comparisons appear almost as frequently.

Mr. DeLaughter, who pronounces his name “de-LAW-ter,” is speaking by phone from Dallas. “The sound I was looking for was rock with symphonic instruments, and then, instead of one person, having ten people singing as one,” he says, citing the Beach Boys, the Association and the Fifth Dimension as childhood influences.

The result was a choir of 10, backed by 14 instrumentalists.

The trigger for the new sound was the overdose death in 1999 of his Tripping Daisy bandmate Wes Berggren. It was the catalyst for Mr. DeLaughter to start doing the sound he’d always wanted to do, which meant recruiting a lot of people.

“We were just about to make a move, and I guess Wes decided to make it for us, and create a new direction,” Mr. DeLaughter says somberly.

The demise of Tripping Daisy led to the birth of Spree’s 2002 demo, “The Beginning Stages of ….” The song “Light and Day,” from that album, became ubiquitous thanks to its use in TV ads and the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Relentlessly happy, “Light” conjures the same mood as the final soaring chorus of “Hey Jude.”

The new (and second) album, “Together We’re Heavy” (Good/Hollywood), is a continuation of the 10-track demo. Its tracks, beginning with “Section 11,” demand to be treated as one classical composition with 10 movements.

The lyrics — dark though hopeful — aren’t as important as the atmosphere, though they’re quite poignant in the melancholy mood-swinger “Suitcase Calling” and the modern-life anthem “Two Thousand Places.”

The closer, “Section 20 (Together We’re Heavy),” is designed as an anticlimax, with celebratory church bells to end the journey and bring the listener back down to earth.

“That just kind of clears your palate for the future. It’s definitely a demanding record sonically,” Mr. DeLaughter explains.

Much of that demand comes in the epic “Section 19 (When The Fool Becomes A King)” as “Sgt. Pepper”-era brass gives way to crescendos and lyrics such as “Stranger to the sun, you’ve seen the light/And it makes me smile.”

“I can’t believe we’ve been able to sustain this for four years,” he says. “This is something that’s not supposed to be happening, this group.”

As for how this all sounds live: “I don’t know. You’ll see what I’m talking about; it’s hard to talk about. It’s a very celebratory event, very high energy.”

9:30 Club patrons might take a tip from “Section 19” as they settle in Monday: “Hail to the sky/Time to watch a show.”

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“You’ll probably hear a couple of Zeppelin tunes. We’ll see; I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Sara Watkins stammers excitedly.

The fiddler and her Nickel Creek bandmates, performing with former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips, close their Mutual Admiration Society tour at the Birchmere next Wednesday and Thursday. The group’s guest will be John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame.

“He’s … I’m just, I can’t believe that we get to play with him. I don’t know how that sort of thing happens,” Miss Watkins says from her home near San Diego. It probably helps to be in a Grammy-winning band whose members have been playing together since 1989, when Miss Watkins was 8.

Miss Watkins, her older brother, Sean, and Chris Thile are the most successful “newgrass” group today, blending bluegrass with rock, pop and classical influences. Their 2002 album “This Side” won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, and Miss Watkins says Nickel Creek is just an acoustic band, not really bluegrass.

“I think [the tour] was his idea,” she says of Mr. Phillips. Members of Nickel Creek had been longtime Toad fans before they met Mr. Phillips and, in 2000, recorded some Phillips songs with him. Finally released last month, the album “Mutual Admiration Society” (Sugar Hill) has excellent musicianship but suffers from the recording conditions of Mr. Phillips’ garage.

Everyone’s mikes bled together, so Mr. Phillips’ vocals and electric guitar tend to drown out everything else. For example, “Windmills” is well-crafted, but Miss Watkins’ vocals struggle just to stay in the background. A playful cover of Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles” redeems the album, as does a hidden track in which the mandolin gets to rock.

The live show with Mr. Phillips will be as playful, and Mr. Jones — who plays at bluegrass festivals and has been a Nickel Creek fan for a while — won’t just play bass.

“He wants to play mandolin with Sean, and there’s going to be little subgroupings within the group,” Miss Watkins says.

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