There was an audible gasp from the crowd when Tim DeLaughter sat down at the front of the stage after a rousing, jumpy encore cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and announced that his band, Hollywood Records act the Polyphonic Spree, was taking a two-month break. Then, from the front row, came a shout: “You deserve it!”
They do. For two years, the 20-some piece band (which changes membership based on locale and availability and includes everything from a harp player to an electric guitarist to a French horn player) has been giving rock’s equivalent of a Pentecostal sermon. DeLaughter conducts the crowd in between conducting his 10-plus-member choir and the rest of his band to jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring peaks.
Those peaks come in the midst of songs ranging from 10-minute horn-based symphonic pop to psychedelic, orchestrated odes to the sun. Wilder Beatles material works as a jumping-off point (“Sgt. Pepper” certainly makes sense as a cover choice) but their references are far wider: “Light and Day” could be a more ecstatic Flaming Lips, and, when DeLaughter’s not singing and the choir’s silent, the French-horn-and-flute breakdowns could serve as the soundtrack for any number of films.
Above everything else, the Spree’s songs possess a real sense of hopefulness, accentuated by the large, looming word “Hope” on the backdrop of the stage. In the hands of a man who didn’t believe his words, this could seem corny. But when DeLaughter tells the audience to “reach for the sun,” he means it. When the audience imitates DeLaughter, singing along and throwing their own hands up (and, unless they’re beyond cynical, they do), that smile widens even further. On this night, it looked like that smile couldn’t have gotten any bigger.
L.A. producer-composer-songwriter Jon Brion, who has worked with the Spree, opened the show with a set that was a great example of why his ongoing Friday residency at Largo is a constant sellout. He opened with a ukulele version of “The Boys Are Back in Town,” did a genius improv loop-only song about the Polyphonic Spree, played his own “Meaningless” accompanying himself on electric guitar and closed with an audience-requested Smiths cover — played in the style of Les Paul. Watching him work is like watching a mad scientist in his lab; listening to the results is like tasting that scientist’s life-changing concoction.