A bit of both. The appropriately named “Extravaganza” is described by Spree band leader Tim DeLaughter as “kind of like Laugh-In with the Polyphonic Spree as the soundtrack.” The stunning 4-hour show featured 2 sets from the Spree, as well as performances from children’s singer and cartoonist Gustafer Yellowgold, vaudeville artist Keith Nelson, the Franklin Institute’s Traveling Science Show, and the Philadelphia Zoo on Wheels. An impressive spectacle for sure—but not surprising given the Spree’s affinity for grand, over-the-top theatrics.
Formed 12 years back in Dallas,TX by DeLaughter, the Spree quickly turned heads with lush, sprawling concoctions and a massive, 12-plus person line-up, whose matching robes sparked cult rumors. A cult of joy perhaps! These days, the Spree boasts a staggering 18 members, including a 6-piece choir—with DeLaughter acting as conductor/front-man/purveyor of magic. Since forming, the band has released 4 full-length records, including 2012’s HolidayDream: Sounds of the Holidays Vol. One, which features 11 classic holiday tunes re-imagined as exuberant arrangements.
Holiday tunes made up the first of the Spree’s two sets, with the crowd swaying along merrily to “Silver Bells” and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Classics like “Do You Hear What I Hear?” were recast with a new, darker melody and Middle Eastern horns, while “Feliz Navidad” was infused with tropical flair. A cover of “Town Meeting Song” from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was a set highlight, DeLaughter climbing atop a small platform to spread his arms and passionately proclaim à la film hero Jack, while “Little Drummer Boy” quite literally exploded with dry ice and joy.
For penultimate number “Silent Night,” DeLaughter invited the children in the crowd on stage to join, then launched into a medley of traditional and Three Dog Night versions of “Joy to the World.” Balloons dropped from the ceiling as confetti exploded like snow and Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa emerged from the wings to join in. For a moment it truly felt like a winter wonderland, with DeLaughter as its gleeful tour guide.
The band’s second set was a more traditional rock set, although there is certainly little “traditional” about a Spree show. Opener “I’m Calling” reverberated with catharsis, the choir proclaiming joyfully, “When I’m in the light, I feel ok!” A cover of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” felt momentous and powerful. Midway through, DeLaughter surprised the crowd by bringing Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle on stage for a moving cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which segued into a positively life-affirming version of “Section 22: Running Away.”
Midway through the set, I stopped marking songs as highlights, because every number felt joyful and indulgent, as confetti bombs rained down and DeLaughter bounded across the stage jubilantly. Second-to-last number “Light and Day/Reach for the Sun” was perhaps the most uplifting, as children waved their balloon candy canes and skipped about, while a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” proved the ultimate finale. I’ve heard this tune perhaps a hundred times, and never have I thought of it as anything but a schizophrenic grunge anthem. Yet somehow, in the hands of DeLaughter and co., it felt joyous, as hundreds of voices screamed in unison, “I love you, I’m not gonna crack.” Emphasis on the love, as always.
And while the majority of the crowd was clearly there to see the Spree, the supporting acts proved fun diversions: Morgan Taylor’s Gustafer Yellowgold offered quirky guitar pop about aliens and pterodactyls, while Keith Warren won oohs and gasps with his sword-swallowing and plate-spinning. The Franklin Institute’s Traveling Science Show wowed with dry ice explosions—and the Philadelphia Zoo on Wheels introduced the crowd to a porcupine, a hawk, a lizard, and an armadillo. At the end of the night though, it was all these acts together that created an unforgettable experience: when the Spree is your curator, you can rest assured you’re in for a magical ride.
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Little Drummer Boy
Christmas Time Is Here
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Town Meeting Song
Joy to the World
Section 12: Hold Me Now
Section 29: Light to Follow
Live and Let Die (Paul McCartney cover)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young cover)
Section 23: Get Up and Go
Section 22: Running Away
Section 14: Two Thousand Places
Section 32: The Championship
Light and Day/Reach for the Sun
Lithium (Nirvana cover)
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