It is May of 2016. The wings of the stage at Levitt Pavilion are lined with friends and loved ones and Dallas-based rock band, The Polyphonic Spree, will begin their set in less than ten minutes. Babies with protective headphones are held up and displayed by proud members of the band. As some of the players are sound checking in plainclothes, it becomes clear that the magic and mystic of The Polyphonic Spree is not contained in the notes they play or the robes they wear but in their ability to create a sense of family and community everywhere they go.
Much has been written about the events that led to the formation of The Polyphonic Spree; how Spree members Tim and Mark and Bryan played together in the art-rock band Tripping Daisy in the 90’s and how that project came to a sudden and unexpected end with the death of founding member Wes Berggren. That is merely the history of the chain of events that led to The Polyphonic Spree. What is often missed, however, is the idea that The Polyphonic Spree wasn’t necessarily a reaction to tragedy as much as it was an acknowledgement of the fragility of life and the importance of family.
The final two Tripping Daisy albums contained the sonic seeds for what The Polyphonic Spree would ultimately become but I don’t believe Tripping Daisy ever could’ve become The Polyphonic Spree. Tripping Daisy was a great band but they came along at a weird time in music history. Between the time they recorded their breakout album, 1995’s I Am An Elastic Firecracker, and the release of their criminally underrated masterpiece, 1998’s Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb, the music world saw major releases by Blink 182, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock. The musical landscape was changing incredibly quickly and, as far as the mainstream media was concerned, there was no place for thoughtful rocks bands with roots in psychedelia. If a band’s music wouldn’t get played on the radio, the band got dropped by their label because at that time there really weren’t other avenues of revenue for bands. Napster hit peak popularity around the time Tripping Daisy released their self-titled posthumous album. As awful as it is, if tragedy hadn’t hit the band, they likely would have tried to soldier on in a music industry that was loyal to nothing and the music The Polyphonic Spree would one day create would have been lost to disenfranchisement.
It was in this forced ending, that the family began to fall into place. Realizing that things were changing and that we only have so much time together on this earth, Tim started pulling friends into the new project. Old bandmates like Mark and Bryan and people that had been instrumental to Tripping Daisy like Julie Doyle and Chris Penn. They wrote songs of hope and joy that didn’t rely on radio, they relied on people. The subject matter wasn’t always cheery but their disposition was.
They got noticed by David Bowie and were taken on tour with him. The band even managed to get Bowie’s legendary bandmate, piano player Mike Garson, to record with them. They added to their local family, bringing on Jenny Kirtland of Kirtland Records and Annie Clark, who would later leave the fold and become known professionally as St. Vincent.
The thing you start notice after following the Spree for a while is just how diverse and interesting each of their individual members are. The Polyphonic Spree is an art-collective made up of yoga instructors, restaurateurs, microphone makers, record store owners, artists, teachers, musicians, and more. As the band continued through the years, their members became further engrained in the culture of Dallas. It is hard to go through East Dallas or Deep Ellum or Lower Greenville without running into members of the band or patronizing businesses or organizations they are parts of. Part of the reason The Polyphonic Spree still has the rabid following that they do is that everyone somehow has a connection to the band and when the band plays you feel like one of them. The band recognizes how important their extended fan-family is as well. They are incredibly gracious with their time and access which only furthers the relationship between the artist and patron.
It is June of 2017. In a turn of unexpected events, Tripping Daisy reunited and played their first return shows in May after being gone for nearly two decades. The reunion was an overwhelming success. So what becomes of The Polyphonic Spree now?
Well, The Polyphonic Spree is still here making beautiful music and, as pillars of the community, making a difference in the lives of others. Last night, The Polyphonic Spree played a benefit for the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center. The DCAC is an organization that aides the investigation and prosecution of the worst cases of child abuse in Dallas County. Organizations like the DCAC operate in some of the the darkest places in order to eventually bring a little light into the lives of these children. The emotional weight of that type of job is a heavy burden to bear and those involved need some levity as respite from doing such important and heart-breaking work. The Polyphonic Spree were amazing and inspirational, as they always are. I hope that last night the DCAC raised lots of money to help out those in the most need but I also hope that a little bit of The Polyphonic Spree rubbed off on the workers and volunteers and they walked out with an extra portion of joy. The world can be a cruel place but last night was an excellent reminder that even when life is tragic, hope and joy still exist.