11.15.15 Polyphonic Spree

Tractor Tavern
Seattle, WA

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)

Seeing the Polyphonic Spree was a totally unique musical experience. From the minute they took the stage at Seattle’s intimate Tractor Tavern, it was clear that the performance would be anything but normal. The eighteen-piece band, each donning their trademark white choral robes, were just barely able to stand onstage together, only fitting thanks to multiple tables and a road case being used to extend the stage area. The venue had promised to stack band members to make them fit, if needed, but this was thankfully not required.

Their instrumentation warrants further explanation. I will begin with their vocal section, centered around bandleader, Tim DeLaughter. DeLaughter’s vocal style reminds me of a cross between Elton John and Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips), taken in a more classical direction. He was backed at this performance by four female harmony vocalists, who helped to form the nucleus of the band’s choral sound. DeLaughter also used a small group of wind chimes to add texture. Their horn section included a pocket trumpet, trombone, and flute, which were all played through extensive effects rigs, including Electro-Harmonix Polyphonic Octave Generators (POGs). This specific pedal produces harmony parts one and two octaves above and below the input signal, and allows for the volume of all four harmony parts and the dry signal to be individually tuned on the fly.

The band featured a myriad of other instruments, including bass guitar, two electric guitars, keys/synths, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, trap percussion and drums. The majority of the stringed instruments were played through similarly extensive effects rigs to the horns, also including the POGs. The lead guitarist, Ryan Fitzgerald, had roughly twice as many effects as any other band member, and spent the bulk of the show playing his guitar with a bow (to this end, he kept his two high strings taped off and muted at the 7th fret). All of the effects are definitely a huge part of their sound, and Fitzgerald’s dedicated role as effects master really helped them to push this to the next level.

The first set of their performance featured a full rendition of their debut album, The Beginning Stages of…The Polyphonic Spree. From the start, it was clear that the crowded room was well prepared for this section of the show. The graceful “Have a Day/Celebratory” was met with impassioned singing from the majority of the crowd. This song reminded me deeply of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” due to the DeLaughter’s triumphant, melismatic lead vocals and its similar-sounding keyboard part.

As the album went on, I continued to notice more and more odd and interesting things happening onstage. The cellist, known only as Buffi J., played the entire show standing up. She performed beautifully, and did not seem to miss a beat as a result of doing so. It was a lot of fun to watch her and the rest of the string section use their effect pedals. This was one of my first times seeing these classical string instruments play through them, and it made me wonder why more musicians don’t integrate this technology into their live acts. It seems arbitrary for effects to be “only for guitars,” as the pedals have been designed to work with any type of input signal. I know that there are many musicians out there who use them for other instruments, I only hope it will be even more prevalent in the future.

Given all of the post-processing going on, it actually did become much more difficult to distinguish individual instruments in the mix aurally. With eighteen different performers and so many of them employing extra harmonies from their effects, the band was clearly aiming for a choral sound. The effects kicked this up a notch, and the best description I can give of their full-band sound is a “chorus of choruses.” They’ve done a great job of turning all of the subtle differences between their instruments and voices into a smooth, broad envelope that has come to define their sound. The listener is forced into evaluating them as a full ensemble, rather than trying to single out different performers and take in only their contributions.

Their light show was also worth mentioning. The front of the stage was lined with three large, moving fixtures that I can only compare to less sophisticated planetarium projectors. These devices had many apertures pointing in all different directions, enabling them to emit different color beams of light in each direction and rotate while doing so. Haze and smoke were used to maximize this effect, and they were utilized tastefully, only a few times during the show. I had not yet seen these type of lights, and it was a real treat to see them in action.

The second set saw them take the stage in slightly more contemporary outfits, this time traditionally cut orange shirts for the gentlemen and pink-striped dresses for the ladies. This set focused on more uptempo, rocking songs with slightly less of a nostalgic feel than the first set. It was truly a sight to behold as all eighteen band members seriously got down onstage. Many times I saw pocket trumpeter, Matt Bricker, hit his head on one of Tractor Tavern’s trademark cowboy boot ceiling decorations. The scene was positively bombastic, and these musicians were the perfect performers to help the crowd build their energy. Their songwriting takes a lot of influence from ‘60s psychedelic rock bands such and the Beach Boys and the Beatles, but the band mixes this with a healthy dose of ‘80s disco rock.

As the show concluded, I felt very cheerful and rewarded by taking a chance on interesting sounding music. While this band is well outside of my normal listening tastes, I knew that general music appreciation would be all that I would need to enjoy this performance. The musicians onstage did a great job; they really came together into something much larger than the sum of its parts. The Polyphonic Spree is a fascinating hybrid between a rock band and a full orchestra, and they definitely merit the awareness of musicians worldwide.

Set One: Have a Day/Celebratory, It’s the Sun, Days Like This Keep Me Warm, La La, Middle of the Day, Hanging Around the Day, Soldier Girl, Light and Day/Reach for the Sun, A Long Day

Set Two: Love/Together We’re Heavy, Hold Me Now, Younger Than Yesterday, Popular by Design, Hold Yourself Up, Porpoise Song, Diamonds

Encore: We Sound Amazed

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