Pop band packs a big crowd - on stage

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Three parts Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, two parts Jesus Christ Superstar, and 100 percent utterly unique, The Polyphonic Spree is the very big little Dallas band that could.

As Spree shows commence, a joyful Tim DeLaughter dramatically leads his 20-some bandmates - all wearing flowing white robes - from the back of the darkened club toward the stage. Exuberant fans - many wearing fuzzy red hats - part like the Red Sea to accommodate them.

In addition to your typical rock components - vocalist, electric bass, guitar, and drums - the Spree features instruments that don't usually get a workout outside of an orchestra pit. Trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn, and harp share the stage with a choir of nine singers who bounce joyfully on risers, belting out backup vocals for Mr. DeLaughter.

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The lyrics are of the simple-yet-profound variety and are repeated often, so that even first-time Spree showgoers can instantly sing along, becoming an extension of the chorus as they belt out such sentiments as, "You gotta be good! You gotta be strong! You gotta be two thousand places at once!"

First-time witnesses to this rapturous pomp and dance-crazed circumstances ask: Are they a cult? What's up with the robes? Is the lead singer some kind of preacher?

If there's any proselytizing here, it's simply an invitation to get happy and stay that way, at least for the duration of the show.

The robes came about as a means to cut down on the sloppy distraction two dozen players in street clothes might provoke. And DeLaughter can't seem to help himself. He's just one of those rare, extremely charismatic guys - Jim Morrison without the doom and gloom.

"When he gets excited, it's infectious," says Chris Penn, the band's manager. "He's like the Pied Piper. He exudes it upon other people."

Ed Lamonica, owner of The Curtain Club in Dallas, says the band has no trouble selling out at his venue. "Tim is a musical genius," he says. "There's some people that just have a charisma on stage. Tim has this charisma. It draws people in."

The band is preparing for its first North American tour this April - with stops in Illinois, Minnesota, California, Colorado, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada. Spree also will release a new record this fall.

The band has already developed a huge following in Britain. It's been across the big pond numerous times, performing at such events as David Bowie's Meltdown Festival last summer.

"I remember the first time we played in England, there were 100,000 people," says bass player Mark Pirro. "I had been in front of large audiences before, but I was overwhelmed. We were playing in another country and being so welcomed. Then the sun came out. It felt really magical."

The band rose from the ashes of Tripping Daisy - a wildly popular Dallas band that had its MTV moment but then disbanded after the death of guitarist Wes Berggren. The reincarnation, entirely new audibly and visually, was DeLaughter's vision.

"He had the name before anything," Mr. Penn says. "We booked a show before he had anybody, so he had to ... do something. He put the word out there. He knew a couple players, and they knew a couple players. The first time they rehearsed he called me and said, 'this is awesome.' "

The first rehearsal was an experience DeLaughter says he'll never forget.

"It was something I'd wanted to do for years. Thirteen of us met the first time, in my living room," he says.

"I had been used to hearing it with just my voice and guitar and my imagination filling in the blanks. Hearing it for the first time for real was so amazing - it was extremely overwhelming and emotional. I started to weep. Everyone in the room looked at me like, 'Are you all right?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I'm just real happy.' "

Fran Badgett has been a fan of DeLaughter since his Tripping Daisy days.

She attended the third annual Polyphonic Spree Christmas show at the Lakewood Theater in Dallas. The evening was an amalgamation of acts and family fun, including a visit from Fort Worth zookeepers and animals; The Syncopated Ladies (an older tap dance group); magicians; and a set of Christmas songs led by the Spree and featuring many children.

"I had lost one of my best friends three weeks before," Ms. Badgett says. "I went to the Lakewood show with his twin brother. It was exactly what everybody needed - people dancing all over the place. [DeLaughter] seems to remember my name and give me a hug every time he sees me. He's so floppy. He's one of those floppy, goofy, comfortable people."

DeLaughter says he feels "blessed" that his unique approach to musicmaking has found such success.

In the beginning, he says, people thought a band with more than 20 members wouldn't go far.

"We didn't realize what we were creating but it seems like we're in a movement, like we have a role," he says. "When people are singing the lyrics to songs that we haven't recorded yet, I'm experiencing enthusiasm unparalleled to anything I've felt before."

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