Is there any band on the planet better-suited to putting on a Christmas concert than The Polyphonic Spree? Do I even have to answer that? This is a band that, even in non-Christmas mode, radiates so much joy to the world that they practically levitate off the stage. Slap a few Santa hats on them, and the joy is so intense you could probably weaponize it and have the entire nation of North Korea doing the “Gangnam Style” dance in the streets. So it’s about time that they finally released a Christmas album, Holidaydream, and took their semi-legendary annual Holiday Extravaganza concert on the road.
The first stop of the Holiday Extravaganza (Holivaganza?) tour was right here in Los Angeles this past Thursday night. Held at the usually dark and clubby Henry Fonda Theatre, it was a kid-friendly affair with unconventional opening acts (a magician, a children’s book author), people in Santa suits and giant snowman and reindeer costumes running around the crowd, printed programs with song lyrics, and a decidedly non-rock concert vibe. One friend of mine brought her seven-year-old daughter, who was happily tear-assing around the venue with another little girl with blinky lights on her shoes. At one point I spotted Spree frontman Tim DeLaughter in the audience, chillaxing and enjoying himself as much as everyone else. It was like being at a church social that just happened to have a full bar with six beers on tap.
The Spree played an early, holiday-themed set for the families and kids; then, after a couple of other musical acts (YouTube-famous folkie Gustafer Yellowgold and the punk-rock-meets-Blue-Man-Group racket of Street Drum Corps), they returned for an extended “rock set” that included old Spree standards like “Soldier Girl” and “Light & Day/Reach for the Sun.” Both sets featured balloon drops, confetti cannons, and loads of rowdy singing along—along maybe not as much singing along as DeLaughter was hoping for when he invited a bunch of the kids up on stage and launched into “Feliz Navidad.” Turns out most little kids whose parents have dragged them to a Polyphonic Spree concert don’t know the words to “Feliz Navidad.” Note to Tim: Try “Jingle Bells” next time. That’s every seven-year-old’s “Sweet Caroline.”
To the Spree’s credit, they didn’t stick to the obvious, feelgood Yuletide classics. Yes, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and “Joy to the World” were practically meant to be played by an 18-piece rock orchestra, and they were suitably grandiose and exuberant. But an eerie, slightly atonal version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was also one of the highlights of the holiday set, as was the “Town Meeting Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also loved that they turned “Silent Night” into a harp solo so beautiful, it actually made you forget that “Silent Night” is one of the dreariest, most dirge-like Christmas carols of all time.
The latest incarnation of the Spree has been stripped down to a comparatively lean 18 members—or so my program tells me. Actually, I only counted 17 people onstage, but maybe the second guitarist was out sick or something. Even minus a French horn or two, they still managed to pump out quite the wall of sound.
The highlight of any Spree set, for me, is their electrifying cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” and the version on this tour, accompanied by a pink balloon drop, does not disappoint.
The only part of the show that was even better than “Lithium”? The milk and cookies they handed everyone in the lobby on their way out. Can all bands start doing this now, please?
The Polyphonic Spree Holiday Extravaganza is only playing four more cities: Chicago (Dec. 11th), Philadelphia (Dec. 14th), New York (Dec. 15th) and Dallas (Dec. 22nd). If you’re lucky enough to live in one of those places, go. What else are you gonna see this time of year? Mannheim Steamroller?