Written with Bob Lee
For music fans who love living on the edge, the Residents are an eternal touchstone, a beacon of light emanating from further out there than usual. They’ll never be huge, but their dogged insistence on doing it their way has led to a certain kind of cultural recognition. Even with the most marginal public exposure, they manage to make a big impression. And for those who have acquired the taste, there’s an awful lot to feast on. They’ve created enough work since forming in 1972 to fill a refrigerator, and every time they come back on tour, you can expect a wealth of new material to fill the set list.
Their current show, Shadowland, is billed as “Part 3 of the Randy, Chuck and Bob trilogy.” Touring as a three-piece since 2009, they have finally begun finally identifying themselves by name – though last night, keyboardist Chuck was said to be retired, and temporarily replaced by his brother-in-law, Rico. Was this actually true? Behind those enormous skull masks, who could possibly tell? Was that guy really fatter than than Chuck, or is it the same guy wearing a fat suit? Who the hell are Randy, Chuck and Bob anyway?
Saturday night, the backdrop at The Regent Theater was a riot of black and white geometrical patterns, giving the stage the aura of a fun house. Otherwise, the set was quite bare, except for a chair designed to look like women’s lips. It was so out of place it added to the quirkiness that balances The Residents’ creepiness. The rear of the stage held a large orb used for showing their confessional films.
Ever since one of their trademark eyeball masks was stolen at The Palace, the band has made a few changes, most notably a skull mask for the lead singer. With the personas of Randy, Chuck and Bob, The Residents have pushed the envelope. Bob and Rico, the guitar player and organist respectively, are currently outfitted with skull masks and goggles. On their heads they wear something akin to an old leather pilot’s helmet with long dangling ropes that resemble dreadlocks when they move. The only vestige of their formalwear were the sequined white tails that all three of them wore.
Randy, the singer, looks like he tried to become the ugliest clown possible. When he removed a demonic half-mask, he revealed an old man mask, gray bushy hair, clown shoes, and ball-huggers on top of a bodysuit painted with the muscles of the body. Perhaps it was a reference to how exposed he feels now without their costumes. Now he lets us see the bottom half of his face. He lets us see his eyes as they hold our gaze through the eye holes in the mask.
Part 1 of the Randy, Chuck and Bob Trilogy, Talking Light, was all about ghosts and death, and spooky things. Part 2, The Wonder of Weird, was about love and sex. The last of the trilogy, Shadowland, is about birth, rebirth, reincarnation and near-death experiences. As Randy pointed out, this amounts to “life in reverse.”
The show opens with the crowd-pleasing “Rabbit Habit” before beginning the suite proper. Shadowland opens with “Fever Dreams,” a catchy, repetitive chant that dissolves into the otherworldly sounds of “Golden Guy.” They treated the audience to “Constantinople,” “They Are the Meat” from the fantastic Wormwood album, “My Second Wife,” and a barely recognizable snippet of “Easter Woman.” For the most part they played Shadowland from beginning to end.
They occasionally broke up the tunes with video confessionals, as they did in the Talking Light show from 2010. Each of the confessionals rode the edge between amusing and disturbing. Perhaps Randy is more of a sideshow barker than a clown, as he throws his hands up in despair and shakes his head dolefully at the confessors’ sad tales.
As is their custom, most of the music was pre-recorded, augmented by the live keyboard and guitar. Still, The Residents call forth such infinitely complex sounds, I can’t shake the feeling that there is a little man with pointed teeth and horns pulling levers behind the curtain.