Monday, July 02, 2007

The Polyphonic Spree @ Warsaw

I first saw The Polyphonic Spree in concert in 2005, when they were supporting Together We’re Heavy. It was an almost overwhelming experience, a torrent of sound unlike anything I’d heard before. I saw them again at the Across the Narrows Festival later that year, but it’s been a year and a half since I last had the chance to experience the best live band playing today. I’m not sure if last night’s show at the Warsaw was my best experience with them, but it certainly seemed to be Tim DeLaughter’s. The Spree frontman kept things going for nearly two and a half hours, drawing out the encore to the point that it was as long, if not longer than the actual set. It was a high energy, incredibly fun show, a reminder of just how powerful people getting together to play music can be.

The show opened with Tim cutting a heart into a giant piece of red paper to reveal the band, who were wearing their black fragile army uniforms. They opened with “Running Away,” the exhilarating first single from the new album. The first time I saw them, the sound was mixed so loud that I essentially lost the higher frequencies midway through the show. This venue felt like my elementary school auditorium, just a really big space, and the sound was mixed much better, such that I didn’t have any more hearing issues than at your average concert. Now, this does sacrifice some of the initial impact of hearing them, but it was good in the long term. I still think “We Sound Amazed” is the optimum show opening song, it’s a shame it’s drifted off the setlist.

But, we can’t live in the past, the new album has plenty of great tracks, and nearly all of them were performed during that initial set. “Get Up and Go” was an early highlight, bringing a heavy guitar riff to the fore, in a way you don’t usually hear with the band. “The Fragile Army” was also fantastic, letting the chorus do some weirder vocalizations than usual. But, even though the new album is on par with the rest of their work, it’s tougher to get into live because I just don’t know those songs as well, and neither does the audience. With a couple of exceptions, no one is really thrilled to hear the new song, in the same that they are when Tim reaches back to the first two albums. That’s an inevitable consequence of doing a show promoting a new album, particularly one that came out a couple of weeks ago.

That said, the crowd was on board for pretty much all the new songs. I think a large part of that is due to the sheer spectacle of their show. There’s so many of them, and the songs have such consistent positive energy, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, the ebbs and swells of the song. There’s nothing like hearing the whole band go from quiet to a sudden burst of sound. These sudden bursts were frequently accompanied by confetti blasts. I particularly liked how their roadie would just run out with the confetti gun and launch it on beat, he seemed so excited to get the chance to do that.

Most of the back catalogue stuff in the main set came from The Beginning Stages. There was a great, stripped down version of “It’s the Sun.” Normally I’m not a fan of the acoustic cut down versions of songs, but playing things down let us better hear all the instruments and their interplay. Plus, we did eventually get the full version during the encore. My major issue with the show was that Together We’re Heavy was virtually ignored. There was an amazing version of “Hold Me Now,” but that was it until the encore. There’s a lot of great songs on that album, “Two Thousand Places,” and “We Sound Amazed” most notably, and I’d love to have heard them.

The initial set closed with “The Championship,” the closing track off The Fragile Army. They tore the song up, building to the closing “Raise our Voices” part. The recording of the song fades too soon on this part, I would have loved to just let it go, so it was great to hear them extend it out live. They kept the refrain going as all the band members gradually left the stage. Tim left, and it was just the audience keeping the song going, and it went on for a good five minutes. I’d never heard anything like it before, people just singing on their own, continuing the show without the band. I think that moment was one of the best testaments to what the Spree do, because there’s so many of them, it fosters a very inclusive feeling. They seem to be having so much fun, you just get caught up in it.

The singing kept going until “Together We’re Heavy” began playing over the speakers and gradually the band filed back up to the stage, passing through the crowd. They did this at the Irving Plaza show in 2005, but it was still an amazing moment, to watch them ascend the stage and start playing again, overtaking the record. They were wearing their white robes now, and this was such a sense of joy in the place. What came after was still great, but that was probably the high point of the show for me.

The first part of the “encore” was a couple of covers, both off the Wait EP. First was Nirvana’s “Lithium.” This was a fun song to see them do, but the subsequent “Sonic Bloom” was more satisfying. I think the Nirvana cover probably worked better for people who aren’t as big fans of the Spree. I’d love to eventually complete the rumored covers album because they really transform a song once they play it.

Following this was a rousing rendition of “Light and Day.” This song is their trademark and it always kills live. The chorus is so easy to sing along too, and by the end I think everyone in the place was with them. I figured that was the end of the show, little did I know there was a good 40 minutes left. Next up was “When the Fool Becomes a King.” This track is an epic, ten minutes on the album, and at least fifteen minutes here. It’s one of my favorite songs of there, filled with the builds and explosions that only they can do. The extended runtime was due to the lengthy theatrics within the song. There was a good five minutes where the band froze and Tim messed around on stage. This went on a bit long, it did build anticipation, but when you’re so far into the show, you don’t want to kill all the momentum of the song. The three minute long piano solo also took a lot out of me, but it was still a great moment when we finally made it to the “It’s the Sun” close of the song. I’m glad that song is still in their repertoire, it’s a great set closer.

With both their big songs performed, I figured that was it. However, Tim wanted to keep going, and the audience was still very enthused, so they broke out “Soldier Girl.” This is another great singalong song. Even though I prefer the more developed songs on Heavy and Army, those Beginning Stages songs kill live.

Throughout the show a drunk guy near me was yelling out “Ride, Captain Ride” repeatedly. I thought it was just a random shout, but the band still had some energy and they started up one more song, “Ride Captain Ride.” This was a great closer. It’s a simple, but anthemic song, and as they went, the chorus and other band members moved to the front of the stage, and Tim went into the audience. It felt like the end of Saturday Night Live, when everyone just gathers on the stage and celebrates a job well done.

At this point, they brought out a cake for guitarist Mark Pirro’s birthday, and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He wrapped things up with a lengthy odd story about his fear of the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” This was a ramble, and that marked the end of the show. It took away some of the momentum coming off the show’s close, but with so many songs, who was I to argue.

This was an amazing show, primarily for what happened after the encore. After the initial set, I was really liking it, but the encore took things to another level. After the Spree filed through the audience, everything was higher stakes, with more crowd involvement and enthusiasm. This was a huge room, but it felt like everyone was completely into what was going on. I’ve seen them three times now and they never cease to amaze me with their communal enthusiasm and joy at being able to play music. I can’t wait to see them again.

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