A new kind of big-tent revival is coming to Redmond, land of the suburban megachurch, complete with traditional garb, hymns of varying musical quality, and religious ideologies both overt and implied. In the overt camp is headliner Matisyahu, the heavily hyped Hasidic dancehall/reggae MC, who supplants reggae's usual half-baked Zionism with more serious Talmudic chops. On the theologically lighter side of things is opening band the Polyphonic Spree, who incorporate the aesthetics of worship, but play lyrically vague, though generally uplifting, choral rock.
Lyrically, the two acts are as different as, say, Old and New Testament—Matis-yahu is all smiting and sacrifice, Zion and Babylon, while the Polyphonic Spree is more of a love fest with God's hippie son. The difference is just as pronounced musically, with Matis-yahu's serious piety left blunted by dull, watered-down sonics, while the Polyphonic Spree's innovative vision breathes real life into their loose, feel-good jams.
Matisyahu is undoubtedly devoted and faithful, and yet his iconic stage persona feels gimmicky and calculated. His earnestly worn Hasidic attire and Orthodox Judaism grant him an exoticized authenticity that trumps race and class, allowing white, middle-American footbaggers entry into a musical tradition that is otherwise comically foreign to them (as in white dreadlocks and the ubiquitous freshman-dorm Bob Marley poster).
What's really bizarre is how Matisyahu's bland, lyrically ascetic music has become so popular. At least with dub appropriators like Sublime or jam-band heroes like Phish, there's a culture of rebellious hedonism to entice the youth. But Matisyahu's lyrics call out materialism, drug use, atheism, and apathy, all without even the radical political undertones of traditional reggae. Could it be that the kids just want to rock out with God? It's a possibility that shakes the very foundations of rock music.
The Polyphonic Spree share Matisyahu's penchant for religious attire, though their costumes are derived not from centuries of tradition but rather from a desire to avoid the distraction of street clothes on stage. For performances and photos, the band members wear matching robes—originally white, now multicolored—giving them the appearance of a hippie cult crossed with a church choir.
"I was inspired by the antics of church," remarks Tim DeLaughter, the group's instigator, from his Texas home. His son is vocalizing loudly in the background, and DeLaughter excuses himself for a moment to tend to him. "The musical seduction that goes along with the worship, especially as a kid, is the only thing you're gonna get out of it. You're not gonna be into some old guy giving a sermon, but if someone's singing music and has a band playing and all that jazz going, then that's something else. If I got anything out of church it was the spectacle of the celebration."
That spectacle is the foundation for the Polyphonic Spree's live performances. Dozens of singers and musicians share the stage at once, harmonizing en masse and playing along on guitar, flute, harp, theremin, and a host of other instruments. Their massive symphonic arrangements make for an entertaining and, at times even transcendent, live show.
Lyrically, the Polyphonic Spree adopt a more nebulous spiritual stance; they avoid obvious sermonizing in their songs, but their lyrics reflect a general positivism and faith in the world. References to "the sun" ("the son"?) are fairly common, but direct mentions of God are confined to platitudes such as the Beach Boyish "God only knows."
"I guess I had what you could call an eclectic religious upbringing," says DeLaughter. "We dabbled in the Church of Christ, baptism, yoga [laughter]. My parents were divorced when I was 2 years old, and I was an only child. So it was really just whatever each parent was going through. I was born in '65 so we went through all that '70s-style religion. Everyone was trying out everything, and my mom was one of them. She dabbled in a lot, and without daycare, I was always along for the ride."
Matisyahu and the Polyphonic Spree represent two different strategies for tackling religious belief in the largely secular world of commercial music, with the former happily employing sincere belief as a marketing device and the latter shying away from overt religiosity for the sake of indie cred. In the final judgment, though, what matters is the music, and by that standard this bill is a mixed blessing.