Bimbo's was packed to the rafters Sunday night for the triumphal homecoming show of music-and-neo-surrealism group the Residents, which was celebrating 40 years of relative obscurity with a blowout tour.
The stage was set with a whimsically unseasonal Christmas theme — huge inflatable candy canes, Santa, and Frosty the Snowman — draped with a hand-lettered banner emblazoned simply with the band name.
The days of elaborate sets and 16-piece ensembles are over for the Residents, and their current incarnation — a stripped-down trio of masked musicians known simply as “Randy,” “Chuck,” and “Bob” — relies mostly on electronic sampling and assorted effects to create the unsettling soundscapes and dissonant jangles they’ve been (un)known for since their very first public release in 1972 — the “Santa Dog” single.
In keeping with the general décor and our armchair roadtrip down memory lane, “Santa Dog,” was the second song of the show, after the burst of the first song, an excellent, elongated version of “Kick a Picnic/Picnic in the Jungle,” written originally for now-deceased Residents’ collaborator, Philip Charles “Snakefinger” Lithman.
The almost chirpy “Give it to Someone Else” followed, from The Commercial Album of 1980 — a time period that lead singer “Randy” quipped was when the Residents “were headed straight for the top…we’d die before our day, and we still will.”
The tone of the show thus established, “Randy,” in a Santa suit of his own and old man rubber mask, continued his spoken confessional interludes throughout the evening, concocting more and more detailed tales of tours past, his 11 ex-wives, and his ailing feline companion, Maurice, as the hooded figures of “Chuck” and “Bob” communicated solely through their instruments: electronic keys and guitar, respectively.
There may be a sense of Zappa-esque whimsy about the Residents, particularly in terms of song titles (“The Confused Transsexual,” “Bad Day on the Midway”) but darkness is never far behind, and lyrics such as “if there was no desperation/would we still be alive?” coupled with dirge-worthy layers of electronica and aggressively distorted vocals that appeared at times to be lifted straight from Coil, and soaring power riffs that no '80s rock band would be ashamed to claim, lent their music a deliberately disjointed flow — hard to sing along to, but impossible to forget.
Even songs with a salacious bent (“Touch Me”) or an hint of vulnerability (“Honey Bear”) contained an undercurrent of open-eyed mortality, exacerbated in no small part by “Randy’s” wrinkled visage. But in the end, whimsy ruled the evening after all, with the sudden “birth” of a towering inflatable Christmas tree topped with an eyeball, that dwarfed the stage as the Jimi Hendrix-worthy strains of “Happy Birthday” rang out from Bob’s guitar, a burst of “Auld Lang Syne,” and finally the last song in the set, “Mahogany Wood” which included the repeated croon: “I wish I was something/I wish I was good.”
No word on whether or not the Residents have found a buyer for their $100,000 boxed set yet, but at least it appears that they can still afford balloons.
Afterwards, it's like a dream/You can't remember but it seems/To stay alive inside your mind/And prey upon your leisure time…