Decked out in white choir robes and numbering close to two dozen, the members of Dallas choral symphonic pop group the Polyphonic Spree enter the cool room with force.
A devoted flock of followers huddled closely together, still in their coats and scarves, anxiously await their entry and applaud in all directions as the line of band members skips in through the two rear entrances to the front.
Close to half the members walk up two sets of staircases that lead to a balcony above the stage, the type of balcony perfectly suited for the Shakespeare plays sometimes performed on the stage at the Brooklyn Lyceum.
Of the group’s main vocalists, five are men and the other five are women, each taking a strategic place on the risers—the men in the back and the women in the front.
Below them, the remaining members of the group take their spots in the orchestra pit, carrying with them a plethora of instruments ranging from a classical harp to a more traditional electric guitar, bass, percussion and an assortment of brass and woodwind instruments.
Hundreds are wedged into a venue that, despite being originally built as a YMCA-type club, seems perfectly suited for the group. The exposed I-beams supporting the ceiling are 30 feet overhead, and the pretty faces of the five female vocalists are clearly visible under the bright stage lights.
The group’s leader, Tim DeLaughter, offers a brief introduction, and the beautiful chaos begins. Before long, the group of 10 situated in the balcony, against a backdrop of stained glass windows and looking every bit the part of a church choir, are rocking back and forth, hair flapping as they sing the chorus, Hey, it’s the sun, and it makes me smile.
The crowd, reacting to the intensity of the aggressive chorus over the textured sounds of the band below, quickly works into a frenzy of finger pointing and arm waving, following the lead of the charismatic DeLaughter. Every once in a while, DeLaughter pauses to push the wavy hair out of his face and then returns to his alternate duties of inspiring his choir and staring into the eyes of his fans, directing them to point heavenward or follow the suit of the bouncing choir members in the balcony.
With the exception of the line, suicide is a shame, in one of the many songs plucked from the group’s debut album The Beginning Stages Of …, all the upbeat lyrics inspire the crowd to reach higher in life and find happiness in the beauty of the melody, the lushness of the harmonies, the urgency of the beat and the intricacy of the many layers of instruments.
Having been called a more straight-forward Danielson Famile, a goofier Flaming Lips and perhaps a more spiritual Beach Boys, the Polyphonic Spree are the type of group that needs little more than an explanation to generate a buzz. The experience of hearing a group of 20-plus troubadours, closely resembling a hippy commune stuck in the ’60s, is enough to convey the sheer magnitude of the group’s vitality.
Making one of three appearances Nov. 1 at the 2002 CMJ festival in New York (the yearly hipper-than-thou who’s who of all things new and noteworthy) it became obvious pretty early on that what was being witnessed at the Brooklyn Lyceum was something out of this world.
Simply put, it was a secular worship experience, one that managed to put the bulk of the crowd into a state of spiritual bliss as the group belted out tune after tune chock full of ethereal melodies, creating a new set of goose bumps on every turn.
Not unlike Spiritualized and Jason Spacemen’s previous efforts of marrying drug culture with illusive references to Jesus, the group draws equal influence from the drug rock genre and the Jesus Movement. Formed out of the ashes of a cocaine overdose that led to the break-up of Tripping Daisy (who we might remember titled their 1998 album Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb), they strike a charismatic nerve and fill, for a brief moment, that desire people often try to fill with religion or a dose of drugs.
Where Spiritualized often sing about Jesus and have been known on occasion to bring in a full-fledged gospel choir for live performances, the Spree experience only resembles, almost in a mocking tone, a generic, emotionally-fueled Pentecostal service. DeLaughter’s posturing in a Christ-like stance at one point, his back to the crowd and his arms outstretched, appeared to be even borderline sacrilegious, with the enthralled audience glowing almost cult-like behind him.
For myself, getting caught up in the experience quickly put my brain to work as I listened to the words of one song, Soon, you’ll find the answer, and tried to decipher between genuine worship and the man-made kind of self-proliferating worship I was experiencing.
What was the difference between this hour-long trip, summed up by the group’s rendition of the classic rock song "Ride Captain Ride" that gave way to the evening closing with a droning meditative sound of the keyboard, and a genuine religious experience?
Ultimately, I contend, it is in the application of that event or experience. This after all, is nothing new. The Grateful Dead and countless other bands with cult followings have turned the pseudo-spiritual concert into an industry, and bands still fill stadiums today with an ease that no church service could ever even begin to rival.
Meanwhile, the rallying cry, "Let me entertain you," has never been more prevalent in Christian circles. Church leaders are blending more and more forms of entertainment, struggling to elicit more emotional responses that they hope will foster a deeper relationship with God, or at least generate fatter tithes and more service involvement.
If I were to compare my experience both listening to the Polyphonic Spree and witnessing their momentous live show, which my more skeptical compatriot found to be borderline redundant and lacking complexity (sound familiar?), to the experience of worshipping God with music in church, it would be difficult. Emotionally, I responded much the same and felt a similar warmth to what I feel when I admire the wonderful things God has created. Mentally, as I walked away to the clang of beer bottles being kicked around on the floor, the snap of Zippos lighting cigarettes and the blast of horns honking in the street, I could recognize that there was something missing.
A day later, sitting in a beat up old church in Newark, N. J., a church so poor they couldn’t afford heat, and listening to a rather mediocre and unrehearsed version of the song, "Heart of Worship," I was reminded of why that empty feeling persisted following the close of such a magnificent spectacle.
As I listened to the words, I’m coming back to the heart of worship, when it’s all about you, all about you Jesus, and started to sing along, pushing aside the fact that my pew was cold and the music was not perfectly in line with the accompanying acoustic guitar, I was blessed and thankful to have a love and a joy in my life that needs no spectacle, that at its deepest and purest level cannot be mocked and replicated in a self-seeking but miserable universe.
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