The Polyphonic Spree/ Har Mar Superstar, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Standing room among the gods (and town criers)
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The Independent Culture

'Oyez, oyez, oyez!" A town crier, in full 17th-century costume, welcomes us - "joyous spirits, all aglow and free" - to Shepherds Bush, and makes a speech which stresses the importance of teamwork over individualism, with the repeated (and, increasingly, audience-chanted) clause "Together we're heavy".

'Oyez, oyez, oyez!" A town crier, in full 17th-century costume, welcomes us - "joyous spirits, all aglow and free" - to Shepherds Bush, and makes a speech which stresses the importance of teamwork over individualism, with the repeated (and, increasingly, audience-chanted) clause "Together we're heavy".

This is Christopher J Brown of Wimborne in Dorset, who has worked with tonight's headliners on numerous occasions, and his collectivist catchphrase is the title of The Polyphonic Spree's new album. The support act who precedes him, however, is more of a believer in the one-on-one.

As chance would have it, Har Mar Superstar has a song called "We Could be Heavy" on his second album, but it concerns getting filthy with your next-door neighbour rather than bonding with your fellow man. And judging by tonight's sneak preview of his third release, The Handler (due in September), this sinner is not ready to repent just yet.

By Har Mar's standards, this warm-up slot is low-key and subdued. (By anyone else's, it would be outrageous.) The Ibiza dancing girls are gone, and Har Mar's only accompanists are the cutest bassist (female) and coolest drummer (male) money can buy, but this has always been essentially a one-man show. The essence of what he does hasn't changed: a not-obviously-sexy man (small in stature, receding mullet, slight belly, hairy back) singing hilariously arrogant songs about being the world's greatest lover, while managing to mimic some of the funkiest talents who ever lived.

"This is the song where I rip off Stevie Wonder really bad," he confesses before "Sugar Pie" (which does indeed sound an awful lot like "Isn't She Lovely"), "so I hope I don't get sued for it." But it takes an immense amount of talent (not to mention cheek) to write songs which can stand alongside the gods in their chosen genres, and Har Mar's not shy about showing his.

Speaking of which, within three songs he's topless, and by the closer - his wickedly funny ode to sex in the workplace, "Powerlunch" - he's down to his tortoiseshell Y-fronts, throwing back-drops and pirouettes, jumping off-stage, cruising the front row, and rubbing his sweaty manflesh along the barrier bunnies.

After that, The Polyphonic Spree's piety can only come as a jarring contrast, although the huge banner behind them, which from my vantage point on the stage-left balcony seems to read "HO", suggests Tim DeLaughter has taken them in a shocking new gangsta-rap direction.

As I move around to get a better view, it spells "HOP" (at which point several members of the Spree do exactly that), until I reach a midway point and see that it does, of course, spell "HOPE". I have to say, at this point, that it's a Monday night, the weather hasn't been too great, I'm a bit skint, and I'm really not in the mood for this kind of thing. I should also make it clear that I've been an atheist since I was 13.

But there's something about The Polyphonic Spree which is irresistible and overwhelming, steamrollering all reservations and vaporising all dissent. In between times, you forget. But when you're there in the room, faced with DeLaughter's 23-piece orchestra and choir (nowadays in pastel rainbow robes, like Joseph's dreamcoat separated in the wash), it's virtually impossible to deny the waves of joy which sweep over you.

Their music - and especially their performance - combines the feelgood potency of The Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals, Mercury Rev, Brian Wilson, "Hey Ya" by Outkast and footage of kittens falling off kitchen tables into one immense lovebomb.

When you step back to think about it, there is something vaguely sinister about this. There's something about the Spree which echoes the Shakers (who used to dance naked in rituals) and the Charismatics (who encouraged glossolalia - speaking in tongues - and involuntary twitching), and by the end of the show, I find myself involuntarily punching the air, shouting "the sun machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party." (I am, you will be relieved to hear, not naked.)

But what The Polyphonic Spree offer is rapture for the godless. They've created something akin to an amped-up version of one of those late Sixties/early Seventies utopian bands (The Fifth Dimension, even the New Seekers) which can touch the devout and the irreligious alike. After they've left the stage, scores of faithful fans throw beachballs around and chant the refrain, "let the sunshine in", forgetting that it's Monday, forgetting everything. DeLaughter, it seems, really is the best medicine.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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