By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This was supposed to be The Polyphonic Spree's finest hour. The band hadn't performed outside Texas. They'd only played a few shows outside Dallas. But people were already talking about them. How could they not be? Two dozen band members, all in matching white choir robes, singing joyful songs about the sun and how it makes them shine--it's hard to ignore.
So here they are, onstage at London Royal Festival Hall as part of the prestigious Meltdown Festival, at the behest of no less than David Bowie. It's like winning the lottery the first time you buy a ticket.
Except they're not performing. They're just standing there in the dark, wondering what to do next, wondering if this trip to England was such a great idea after all. People say things that sound too good to be true usually are. Right now this is the dictionary definition of that saying.
Front man Tim DeLaughter stands at the tip of the stage, staring at the audience. The rest of the band stares at DeLaughter. "We were looking at Tim going, 'What the fuck is he gonna do?'" his wife, Julie Doyle, who's also a member of the band's eight-person choir, says later. It's a good question.
DeLaughter starts to sing a song called "Diamonds." It's a new number, one they haven't recorded yet. The choir joins in. Then the symphonic instruments: viola, flute, trombone, trumpet, harp. Music, if no light, fills the space. It sounds good, sounds right, because it's the kind of music meant for this concert hall, which houses the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
They keep singing, creeping closer to the part of the song where they'll need electricity the most, the cathartic moment of "Diamonds" when the music swells and explodes into a shower of sunshine. This type of thing has become The Polyphonic Spree's hallmark. Maybe it won't happen tonight. It's good enough they were able to salvage the show.
Then, one by one, the amps start popping back on. It's just a click and a warm hum, but onstage it sounds like the Mighty Mouse theme--"Here I come to save the day!" Everything comes together just in time for the rest of the band to join in and--BOOM--the song blows a hole in the roof, leaving behind a mushroom cloud with a smiley face.
The funny thing is, everyone in the audience thought The Polyphonic Spree planned it that way.
"And then they started saying we need to do that every night," DeLaughter says. "Like, are you fucking kidding me?"
This show, which took place in June 2002, was The Polyphonic Spree's Big Moment, the band's answer to U2 at Live Aid, Michael Jackson moonwalking across the stage at NBC's 25 Years of Motown, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Overseas, at least. Within a week, they were doing more interviews than they could handle, and the orgiastic British press had declared the group to be a better live show than the return of Jesus Christ.
They haven't had that moment in America. Yet. There have been smaller eruptions at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival and New York's CMJ New Music Marathon. The enthusiastic press that has resulted could paper a three-bedroom house, the group's teenage symphonies to God reducing even the most hard-nosed music critics into giggling schoolgirls. The group caught enough eyes and ears to land a contract with Hollywood Records, which re-released the band's debut, The Beginning Stages of...The Polyphonic Spree, in June and is set to issue its second effort, Together We're Heavy, in May. But it will take more than gushing reviews and glowing word-of-mouth to propel the band beyond the realm of underground heroes. Even Hollywood, with the backing of corporate parent Disney, can't guarantee anything.
What they need is for the power to go out. Again.
"We believe there will be that event that will take place during the life of The Polyphonic Spree that will make everybody go, 'Oh, my God, that's it!'" says Eric Ferris, head of marketing at Hollywood and the ex-manager of Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter's former band. "It's rare that you get to kind of work with something that's really unique and different...When you have the opportunity to work with something that is recognized as that, and you know that is that, then there's an obligation to do whatever we can to make sure that more and more people know about it. We know it's going to take time. That's the one thing we know."