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In the music spotlight: Polyphonic Spree

By Jeff Elbel | For the Sun-Times

In a previous musical lifetime, Tim DeLaughter led neo-psychedelic pop-rockers Tripping Daisy. The group found modest success with singles like “I Got a Girl,” built around clever manipulation of its conventional four-piece lineup. DeLaughter had something different in mind when he launched his sprawling next group. The Polyphonic Spree is now celebrating the 15th anniversary of its debut album “The Beginning Stages of ….”

The album’s choral pop and symphonic flourishes still command attention. Combined with the hard work necessary to simply keep the massive group running, the enduring music testifies to DeLaughter’s commitment and vision. “A lot of people didn’t think this band would last 15 years,” he says. “It’s cool to pay homage to that.”

Bands’ war stories often describe road life with a van-load of musicians and crew. DeLaughter’s cat-herding expertise puts them to shame, coordinating the efforts of rockers, symphonic players and choir. “I think there’s 18 of us on the stage,” he says. “Back in the day we had 28, which was absurd.”

Dressed in matching robes during early years, the Polyphonic Spree couldn’t help but present a slightly religious aura. However, they seemed less like mystic monks and more like a traveling hippie commune spreading a message of brotherly love by implementing Brian Wilson’s notion of the “teenage symphony to God.”

“In the beginning, I thought it would be too distracting to have that many people onstage wearing street clothes,” says DeLaughter. “Rock and fashion and clothing – people put so much energy into that. I thought, ‘I’ll clothe this band as a unit, so it can be judged as a whole.’ ”

The tone of “The Beginning Stages of …” was refreshingly positive in the waning years of grunge music. “Celebrate,” DeLaughter sang reassuringly on the opening track. “Soon, you’ll find the answer.” Another song described the joy of standing in the sun.

The band was soon labeled as overtly happy – not that you’d think that would be a bad thing. DeLaughter believes the reputation was miscast. “I get it, looking back,” he says. “But it’s not the tone of that record.”

“The record is actually very melancholy,” says DeLaughter. “The song ‘Light & Day’ would be an exception. I almost didn’t put that on the record because I didn’t think it fit, but my wife insisted. Thank God she did. Still, to me the vibe of the record is fog over the land, low to the ground. Finding your way.”

* The Polyphonic Spree, with The Sharp Things, 8 p.m. Nov. 8, City Winery, 1200 W Randolph, (312) 733-9463, $32-$38; citwinery.com. SPOTIFY playlist: http://bitly.com/SpreeSPOT

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.