The Residents at Turner Hall
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It’s been a common conceit in popular music to perform (and even to appear) in public as a fictional character, putting layers of mythology, rumor, and speculation between listeners and the real people behind the music. Thing is, that usually only works for so long; eventually acts get dropped, high concepts crumble, and mysteries get solved. Not always, however, as in the case of The Residents, who have managed to operate with relative anonymity for four decades, releasing over 60 albums of torturously deconstructed American pop and eerily experimental soundscapes (not to mention all the films, CD-ROMs, and whatnot). The group’s 40th anniversary “Wonder Of Weird” tour takes an appropriately deranged look back at that remarkable career and, as should probably be expected by now, provides absolutely no answers about any part of it.
Though they’re known for their elaborate multimedia stage shows, the only thing people can really expect walking into a Residents show is that it’s going to be fucking strange. So it was both surprising and par for the course to enter Turner Hall Sunday night to find just a blow-up Santa and snowman occupying the stage, the sort of tacky yuletide crap found at any Walmart. Of the three remaining Residents, keyboard/laptop player Chuck and guitarist Bob (last names unknown) emerged first, clad in their unsettling, dreadlocked bondage masks, with lead singer Randy following shortly thereafter, wearing the creepy old-man makeup that has become his signature in recent years and an ill-fitting Santa suit. His outfit went well the opening number, a protracted rendition of The Residents’ debut single, 1972’s “Santa Dog,” but made less and less sense as the band worked its way through a bursting back catalog—although Randy occasionally tore off his T-shirt to reveal another and another, each representing a phase in the group’s career.
The “Wonder Of Weird” finds Randy, the only one who talks, in a wistful mood, reminiscing about the twists and turns The Residents have taken over the years, sort of like an episode of VH1 Storytellers gone completely insane. “Santa Dog” inspired memories of sending out the 45s to Frank Zappa, The Beatles, and President Nixon. (“We didn’t get too many thank you notes.”) His recounting of a dark period in the ’80s—culminating in the death of frequent collaborator Philip Lithman (a.k.a. Snakefinger) provided the ominous context for a rendition of “The Man In The Dark Sedan,” from 1980’s Greener Postures, an album The Residents helped write and produce. The ’90s found the band back on top, but Randy’s personal life apparently continued to degenerate into the new millennium, leading him to an unsuccessful porn career and a move from San Francisco to L.A., where he missed his chance to play Donkey in Shrek. (“Fuck Eddie Murphy!”) As his tale of woe reached its climax, the smiling Santa and snowman silently deflated.
The twisted black humor The Residents weave into everything they do is an important element in why the band works. (It seems doubtful anyone would take it seriously if the band took itself too seriously.) But the comedy and theatrics, at least on this tour, are just so much window dressing for the music, which deftly navigates the space between pop and avant-garde, making everything familiar frightening, and everything scary seem strangely entrancing. Not that all of the showmanship, props, and costumes aren’t welcome, adding as they do an additional layer of surreal unreality to the proceedings, like a David Lynch film come to life. At the end of the two-hour show, as an eyeball-topped Christmas tree slowly rose from the pile of rubber that used to be Frosty and old Saint Nick, accompanied by the strains of the national anthem as only The Residents can play it, the audience may have wondered how they’ve managed to keep something this weird going for this long—and hoped they can continue doing it for a long time to come.