Fragile Army invades Pittsburgh

The sprawling musical collective known as The Polyphonic Spree played Pittsburgh for the first time last Thursday at the South Side’s Rex Theatre. The Pittsburgh show found The Spree at the end of its 2007 tour, with the Rex the second to last venue scheduled before the band’s return to hometown Dallas, Texas. Opening for The Spree were bands The Redwalls (of Chicago) and Rooney (of Los Angeles).

Rooney, the bigger of the two, was delightfully power-pop — the members are all under 25, with carefully mussed ’70s bowl cuts, similarly retro
wardrobe selections, and brooding, adorably serious countenances onstage. Their music isn’t easily dismissed, however; although missing lyric sophistication, the group had a cohesion and ambition in performance that may soon blossom into more original lyrics. Perhaps inspired by their tourmates, The Spree, the lead singer of Rooney led an engaging sing-along that enticed most of the audience members to clear their throats and contribute.

Onto The Polyphonic Spree: Some bands are acknowledged to be stronger as studio bands — they sound great coming through your speakers, but live they’re lackluster or fail to make eye contact. Alternatively, some bands have a charismatic stage presence but can’t bring the strength of their live performances to their recordings. The Polyphonic Spree falls into neither of these unfortunate categories; instead, The Spree provides a stunning, uplifting live performance — backed by respectable studio work.

After Rooney finished its set, the stage at the Rex was flooded with people, and then swiftly obscured by a long crimson banner, stretched across the stage by two Spree members. A tall man lugging a harp made his way through the crowd, smiling and apologizing profusely as he bumped delighted audience members. This was Ricky Rasura, self-proclaimed “rockin’ plus rollin’ harpist,” who contributes vigorous, heavenly arpeggios to The Spree’s gospel sound. The mysterious red banner hid increasingly loud activity from the audience, horns and drum sets sounding briefly, while bodies visibly nudged the cloth forward. The banner was a neat theatrical trick, raising the audience’s anticipation so that when a low, quivering note finally sounded from behind, the crowd erupted with excitement. A pair of scissors ripped through the cloth and quickly cut out the shape of a heart, tossing the cloth into the crowd; then cut straight up and down, parting the banner to reveal The Polyphonic Spree in full performance regalia.
Dressed in black military body suits with patches on the arms reading “The Fragile Army” and other peace/love slogans, the 23 members of The Spree — horn, string, and drum sections and a vocal choir — gave the audience a heady, heavily danceable set of exhilarating symphonic pop. Bandleader Tom DeLaughter marched, pranced, and shook his fists, while the female choir singers held their hands aloft and sang lustily. Instrumental work was just as inspired; although there were many musicians on stage, the resulting sound fused together without compromising any of its parts. The crowd was in top form, as well, dancing feverishly for the entire set, and often singing along at DeLaughter’s urging. For the encore, the band came back out on stage dressed in long, flowing white robes, looking like a gospel choir in the middle of a church service. For The Spree, music is holy, deserving of white robes and the amount of fervor all 23 of them bring to the songs, the stage, and each other.

The Spree is most recognized and adored for its zany big family/army image, and the immense, exuberant sound that comes with it. According to the band’s website, DeLaughter often brings songs to all the members of The Spree, asking each to contribute. During the work on The Spree’s latest album, The Fragile Army, band members worked for no money, with no contract or assurance of compensation. This kind of emphasis on teamwork, and the love of the music, was obvious in The Spree’s live performance, where the members were clearly having fun on stage.

It didn’t hurt that Pittsburgh caught the band at the end of their tour, a fact DeLaughter acknowledged to the audience. “You guys got us at the right time.... Finishing a tour is when you want to see a band,” he said. “Not the beginning. The beginning, they’re rough. The end, everything is smoother.”

Still, it would be an oversimplification to attribute The Spree’s successful Pittsburgh debut to timing. The overall attitude of the band — fierce optimism and compassion for the world and each other — is rare and welcome in contemporary music. The band’s message is one of love, embracing light and positive energy, values that are easily sneered at these days — but not when you have an army (however fragile) at your back.