18 May 2013
A rare London appearance from The Residents, stopping off at The Barbican on their Wonder of Weird 40th anniversary tour. The show is presented as a kind of unreliable ‘history of our band’, and begins with a short film, a collection of excerpts from old (and formidably strange) videos and live performances. This does a fine job of encapsulating their appeal and setting the scene, and this often somewhat sterile venue is crackling with anticipation by the time the group take to the stage.Four decades into one of the longest and strangest trips ever undertaken, the anonymous band have assumed a new disguise, perhaps their most ingenious yet: tonight The Residents present themselves as a fictitious band: a trio called, you guessed it, The Residents. We are told that their real names are Randy (on vocals), Chuck (keyboards and electronics), and Bob (guitar). There’s no sign of the famous eyeball heads – at least, not to start with – instead ‘Chuck’ and ‘Bob’ sport bizarre hi-tech masks and headgear, the overall effect being something along the lines of cyberpunk Rastafarian, while ‘Randy’ has a prosthetic ‘old man’ mask covering the upper half of his face, topped off with comically extravagant tufts of hair that sprout from each side of a (false? real?) bald pate.
The programme notes (written by Freq’s very own editor), explain that we will be treated to a kind of career retrospective, with radically reworked versions of material both ancient and recent. Haven’t we been here before, I wonder when I read this – both Our Finest Flowers and Icky Flix were based on offbeat revamps of old songs, after all. But the inspired conceit of presenting the band as a cartoon version of themselves takes the show into entirely new and headspinning territory, as ‘Randy’ relates the story of the band between the songs, gleefully mixing fact (stories of real Residents albums, tours, and crises) with absurdist fiction – never more outlandish than when he tries to convince the audience that there was once a time when he, Randy, was knee-deep in groupies (he also claims to have ten ex-wives) thanks to his pop star status.The stage set is minimal in comparison to some previous Residential spectaculars, and looks as if it was designed with smaller venues in mind – the Barbican stage is huge, and the group’s backdrop and props look a little lost initially. But effective use of the lighting rig compensates for any smallness of scale and soon enough the audience is drawn in to this peculiar little world, the oddness heightened by the fact that it’s summertime, yet the show has a Christmas theme, complete with fake snow and an inflatable Santa. Things get underway with uncompromisingly harsh and menacing renditions of “Loser=Weed” and the deeply sinister “Picnic in the Jungle,” and right from the off it’s clear that they’re not kidding when they say they will be taking all manner of liberties with their old material.
The sound is astonishingly clear, almost crystalline, and is based on a continual interweaving of gleaming synth and jagged guitar. In fact the guitar sound is very reminiscent of their old collaborator, the late Snakefinger (who features in some of the stories later on in the show). There is however, a certain sameness to it all as the set progresses – they don’t seem inclined to try any other settings on their various pieces of kit, and in the middle of the set there’s a series of songs which all seem to be performed in similar fashion, with the vocal melodies reduced to nursery rhyme levels – one such is “Give it to Someone Else”, which almost seems to have been used as a template on which to remodel a number of other songs. And for a period, interest flags – the music isn’t quite living up to the concept. The group are at their best when their bizarre psychodramas retain sufficient human warmth to make you care, to feel something about the cast of doomed oddballs and misfits that populate their work. At times, however, we tip into a realm that feels like weirdness for its own sake.Just as I was starting to feel that the evening was shaping up to be intriguing but ultimately disappointing, there’s a major shift in gear. The woozy nursery rhymes are discarded, and a superbly dramatic rendition of Snakefinger’s “The Man in the Dark Sedan” sets the place alight. From here, the rest of the show is a triumph. Expertly, they lurch into ever-darker territory, which culminates when ‘Randy’ appears to undergo some appalling onstage psychological meltdown as the terrifying “Black Behind” howls around the venue, the lightshow goes haywire, and the stage set collapses in sad disarray around the musicians.
We know it’s all an act, of course, but damn, it’s a good one, and now we really do care. Which makes the finale, in which a giant eyeball rises like a phoenix from the wreckage and the world is apparently set to rights, genuinely moving and uplifting. And rather than over-analyse the many layers of artifice and honesty that make up this extraordinary show, I’ll simply say that everyone leaves with a smile on their face. Long live The Residents, whoever and whatever they are.