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Polyphonic Spree Live in NYC : Together We Shine

Mark Smotroff hops on the magic bus of a groovy band with a groovy live show & groovy live album….

There was a time when a band or artist ascended to mass popularity after issuing some great studio albums and then releasing a live recording that attempted to capture some of their stage magic in a bottle (if you will). Some of these live recordings could be career definers for many artists, especially in the 1970s.

AR-YouMeDvdCover225.jpgBenny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert is arguably the first album to do this in 1950 as one of the original recordings issued in the newly-extended LP format. It sold more than a million copies and remained popular over the years, even making the transition to the digital era on CD.

The Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East catapulted that band into popular mainstream consciousness with its remarkable recording quality and stellar performances. The Grateful Dead’s three LP Europe ’72 collection similarly ascended giving way to a wave of multi-disc live albums in the years ahead including The Band, Yes, ELP, Kiss, Genesis and Peter Frampton, the latter becoming one of the biggest selling records of all time. 

Fast forward, the times have changed and rock ‘n roll — and pop music in general — is more of a tossed off commodity than the unique and eye-opening moment of wonderment that some of us experienced while our favorite artists transcended from cult status to headlining legends.  Amidst our present disposable artistic environment there ARE voices out there fighting the good fight, delivering amazing music and inspirational performances which — if they existed at a different time and place — might well become as big as… Justin Bieber. 

The Polyphonic Spree are one such amazing group which more people should know about. They have played to huge audiences around the world and still remain shockingly unknown to the general public at large. The band has put out four fine studio albums, many singles and EPs, a spectacular surround sound disc on DVD Audio (which is truly wonderful!) and even a Christmas record!  

They are doing all the right things on an indie level, the stuff which artists used to do on mainstream major labels. Its all very cool.

Yet, pop stardom ascension awaits The Polyphonic Spree and their fearlessly inspiring leader, Tim DeLaughter.

Recently they put out a live album and companion DVD+CD set that is a step in the right direction. I bought my copy of You + Me Live in NYC at their show last year in San Francisco and was pleased to add it to my collection. More of an official bootleg in its production aesthetic than, say, the elaborate multi-gatefold splendor of albums like Yessongs by Yes, this new live Polyphonic Spree album nonetheless captures the band in fine fettle at the end of its 2012 tour at Webster Hall in New York City.  In general the sound quality is good for a live recording in the digital age and it captures much of the aural excitement of the shows I have seen by The Polyphonic Spree. 

More recently still, I picked up the DVD+CD set of You + Me Live in NYC which made for an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast for you, Dear Readers, especially for those of you have not experienced the band live.   

AR-LiveAlbumBackground225.jpgVisually the DVD looks pretty great all things considered. Its a standard DVD, not a Blu-ray, so don’t go into this expecting HD video with fancy surround sound and all that. For a standard DVD, You + Me Live in NYC looks remarkably good when played on my trusty Oppo BDP-83 over my 50-inch Panasonic Plasma television screen. Looking at the video on my 27-inch iMac, the video appears much more pixelated with lots of visible video scan type lines (or some sort of visual anomaly, I’m not sure what you’d call this technically). My guess is the Oppo upscales and filters, filling in the blanks on media like this making them look better than they really are — a cool thing.  

So… your experience may vary depending on your DVD / Blu-ray player’s capabilities. But don’t let that sway you — chances are its gonna look just fine on your DVD or Blu-ray player!

Listening closely, sonority varies quite a bit with the different formats. The CD is not surprisingly a bit hard edged, with pianos feeling angular and cymbals swishy.  The mid ranges are a bit cold and the digital edges emerge as you try to play it loud. However, this will probably sound fine in the car and if I rip it to my computer for use on the road on my iPhone or iPad.

AR-POlyphonicSpreeLiveLPLabel225.jpgThe LP version initially sounds a tad murkier yet ironically fuller. Once your ear and mind get used to the different sound of the mix (which was probably EQ’d very differently than the CD or DVD), everything sounds, ultimately, better, warmer.  The pianos sound more full bodied and the bass feels bigger, with more resonance in the lower end and mid ranges. Playing this album loud, it doesn’t hurt my ears so much as it does with the CD. While there is clarity on the cymbals and such, the music does feel a bit reigned in at points, probably a necessity to enable steady tracking (or just the way they happened to handle the LP mastering process). 

It is what it is.; turn it up loud and things start to flower.  Its really interesting to hear how different the vinyl sounds vs. the purely digital options. The standard weight vinyl is generally quiet and well pressed. On my initial pressing, one side was very off center for my own tastes, but that was quickly rectified when I sent an email to the the folks at Good Records Recordings (their label); within a week a new copy arrived without that issue. They didn’t even ask for the old copy back. 

Going back to the DVD, the sound there is yet still another altogether different affair. Played on my computer, I noticed that  — curiously — it is the sample rate which may be impacting the swishiness of the aforementioned cymbal sounds. The AC3 audio on the DVD  shows up on my VLC player as 48kHz, 256 kbps. So, it appears that — perhaps, as I’m just guessing here folks — that extra 7 kHz between this and the CD’s 44.1 kHz makes a big difference in fidelity. 

And there I go splitting hairs again folks…  

]]>At the end of the day, the music you get will be the more or less same in any format you choose and — ultimately — that IS what really matters. This performance of The Polyphonic Spree in New York much of the feel and excitement of one of their shows. It comes with a wonderful documentary showing just what a heartfelt and passionate project The Polyphonic Spree is …. are… have always been … and will no doubt in my mind continue to be.  The band does all the stuff themselves that big record labels (and the affiliated production and companies) used to do for the artists as part of their contracts (many of whom, back in the day, unknowingly-until-it-was-too-late ended up in ridiculous debt to said labels and a service companies for said services).  

AR-POlyphonicSpreeLiveLPLabelBlue225.jpgSo, while The Polyphonic Spree may not have the benefit of the classic star-making machinery that lofted so many pop stars into the stratosphere in the 1970s, you gotta respect these folks for doing it their own indie way. They are living the dream on their own terms, not beholden to an outdated corporate structure that  — in general, arguably — never really had the artists’ best interests in mind. 

In the lower right corner of the inner gatefold on the DVD package is a nifty little logo of sorts. Its more like a full color version of what might be on the back of a coin, as if Polyphonic Spree currency existed in an alternate universe. And instead of it saying “In God We Trust” and “E Plurbus Unum” it reads:  “Together We Shine” and “The Mess is Honest.”

That really sums up The Polyphonic Spree: an inspiring, beautiful honest mess… 

AR-PolyphonicSpreeWebsterHall2012LPs.jpgWhether its the CD you play … or the two-LP colored vinyl set… or if you watch the DVD over and over and over … you’ll end up feeling good joining The Polyphonic Spree’s dreamy universe. I’m thankful that Tim DeLaughter and his merry band of polyphonic pranksters are out there fighting the good fight — “on the bus” as the saying goes — spreading the word of peace, love and hopefulness at a time when so much around us is bleak and dark.

Thank you Tim for being there with You + Me and The Polyphonic Spree.

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