Monday, March 20, 2023

The Residents: a concert review, Vancouver 2023 - a worthy 50 year celebration

All photos by Bob Hanham, March 18, 2023; not to be reused without permission

My friend David M. - the only person I know who covers the Residents, FEAR, and Bruce Springsteen in his live sets - has said that he loves shows that do not go as planned, where bands have to improvise, adapt, make adjustments. He finds that a degree of chaos, frustrating as it can be for musicians, often results in a better, more memorable show. 

He should have come to see the Residents last night.
It was the Residents show I have enjoyed most of the three I have seen, an amazing, crowd-pleasing representation of highlights from their long career, including, unbelievably, "Smelly Tongues," which I never thought I'd get to hear live. But it was also by far the show most beset with difficulties of the three, stripped down by circumstance beyond what was intended, so David might be onto something, there. I did not envy the challenges faced (all of which, I believe, can be blamed on the US/ Canada border crossing; the Hollywood Theatre did everything right that I could see, and seems a fine, fine space for live music). I felt bad for the band, on a couple of fronts, but from the point of view of a selfish fan, last night's show was a delight from start to finish, with the only disappointments (no merch) being somewhat epiphenominal, if you see what I mean.        

I did not get an authoritative point of view about how things happened, but word spread via various channels as people chatted up the unexpectedly-present Vancouver soundman Chris Crud (who did an amazing job with the sound) or reported stories from people who talked to people who had dined with a member of the band... A picture emerged: there were key members of the crew that did not get across the border, from the soundman to the merchpeople. If merch was packed on the tour bus, the crew who DID get across the border were unable to find it for the hopefuls who stood around the tour bus afterwards, hoping to buy a t-shirt - including a drunk girl who was hoping to get one for $10! It was to no avail: wherever the boxes were packed, there was no time or manpower to dig them out, let alone let us pick through them. The band also had to load out almost immediately, because - neverminding crossing back to join up with their soundman and merch guy, waiting, I guess, in Seattle - there was a kink show set to start at the Hollywood at 10:00, with the audience for that show waiting in the lobby as security urged Residents fans towards the exits and a clown in a green wig and a bondage-cum-fishnet-lingere costume loaded crates of equipment in from a U-Haul parked outside ("the changing of the guard," I quipped; it pleases me to know that there are, apparently, people with a fetish for clowns in green wigs, though I myself am not one). And finally, there were tech difficulties: there was supposed to be a video component projected on the screen, the content of which remains almost entirely unknown to me, as other than a Residents' 50th anniversary logo that started the night off, all we got of the multimedia component were occasional HDMI error messages (see pic above) that flickered on the screen while the wrong people, I guess, occasionally ventured forth to lamely push buttons on the projector and shrug. Ultimately the projector was just turned off and the white circle in the set design that was supposed to serve as a screen remained a white circle. A zero. Which in its own way, is perfect too, and went mercifully unnoticed by most band members, since it was behind them on the stage.  

So I have no idea what the show had been supposed to look like. I have not seen the Residents since the days of Randy Rose - whose "death" is the partial theme of the film Triple Trouble, which screened before the concert, playing like a sort of Lynchian, expanded Twilight Zone episode. Directed by the Residents and Residents manager/ graphic designer Homer Flynn, the film tells the story of Randy's estranged son Randall, who is obsessed with a malign fungus that he believes is spreading through plumbing throughout San Francisco, and who occasionally receives spectral communications from his dead father (tho' be clear on this: the Residents' unfolding narrative may have Randy being dead, but the person who plays Randy, "the Singing Resident," is still very much alive and still singing for the Residents). Randy was a bit of a handful, as you may recall, offering cranky monologues, strange stories, and colourful, occasionally slightly digressive opinions between songs. Thanks to the film, where his ghost, like Hamlet's father, appears occasionally to impart advice to the mentally ill main character - a former priest turned plumber - we did get to taste a bit of Randy's philosophy (a speech about the importance of passion was particularly significant), but unless I missed something, the Singing Resident (whose current moniker I do not know) did not utter a word that was not a song lyric while on stage, mostly withdrawing into a contemplative, hands-folded pose between songs. 

The Singing Resident has very expressive hands. And he really should market those costume designs for pyjamas or something!

Whatever we were supposed to experience, the show we GOT was, happily, quite magnificent. As fulsome and rich and maximal as the show I caught at the Rio was, last night ended up, whether by design or default, a brilliantly-executed presentation of JUST THE SONGS. I'm the kind of music fan whose favourite moments at a concert often involve me listening with my eyes closed, such that the absence of much in the way of elaborate set design, costume changes, multimedia or so forth only helped me get into the music more; I was even able to dance a little (to "Diskomo!"). I welcomed the lack of distractions and while I was glad Randy did pop up in ghost form in the film, there probably wasn't enough TIME for him to talk much between songs, if he had manifested onstage... so it's just as well. Last night was maybe disappointing to people whose primary orientation towards the band is visual, who WANT the theatre and the multimedia and so forth (tho' Graham seemed to enjoy himself, and his background with the band is almost ALL video). But for people who just want to hear their favourite Residents songs... crikey it was good. 

...And possibly better than the Dog Stab! tour would have been, though who knows what that might have looked like had COVID not gotten in the way. Bubba Hodges of Cryptic explained it to me in a previous interaction, since the original tour was conceived - booked before COVID, and twice-cancelled, he wrote, 

the show has evolved quite a bit. It started primarily as a promotional vehicle for the Metal, Meat & Bone album which was new at the time. The entire album was to be played in that version with added selections from Duck Stab, mainly for the fans. When that one was cancelled, it evolved toward the 50TH anniversary with less MM&B, more Duck Stab and even a Third R'nR encore. That tour was cancelled except for three California shows in 2021. The next version - the one you will see in Vancouver - has retained a handful of both MM&B plus some Duck Stab songs and added quite a few "classics" to make it an authentic 50TH Anniversary show.

I made notes of the songs played, but they are likely incomplete, especially since a few songs were actually medleys of tunes, a verse or two from one morphing into a verse or two from another, starting with a mashup of  two Hank Williams songs, "The Singing Waterfall" and "Jambalaya" (as also yoked on Stars and Hank Forever). "Hello Skinny" was followed by "Cut to the Quick" off Metal, Meat & Bone, followed by "Laughing Song" off Duck Stab, which I wonder inspired Flipper with "Ha Ha Ha." That was followed by "Boxes Full of Armageddon" off The Bunny Boy, then "Bach is Dead" (and some song that seemed to have a lyric about Bach being born again, but maybe I was hearing that wrong?). "Cold as a Corpse," I think, morphed into "Would We Be Alive," which I think was the only song representing the (four-album, or is it five?) Mole Trilogy, appearing as it does on Intermission. We heard favourites like "Moisture" and "Constantinople," the latter with the singing Resident, in an acapella introduction, riffing at the end on the childish hide-and-go-seek intonation of "ready or not, here I come." "The Monkey Man" off Animal Lover appeared, though with a very different vocal and percussion that was less Harry-Partchlike than the studio version. There were a couple slightly obnoxious characters at the front, including someone who seemed pretty drunk, who got the stinkeye from a few of us for making himself a bit too audible between songs (word to the wiseguy: a better index of how much certain songs mean to you is for you to shut up and listen to them, compared to, say, turning to the people next to you, who do not know you or care, and explaining how much the song means to you in a booming cackle, so that everyone around you can hear you, too), but he also cheered loudly for Duck Stab!-era classics like "Semolina," was clearly a true fan of the band, so we cut him a little slack (tho' his buddy's drumming on the stage reminded me of Grant Hart chewing out some fans trying to clap along with "It's Not Funny Anymore," the one time I saw him: "You weren't at the rehearsal and you're not in the band!" he said, after which he started over. Two slightly obnoxious people in an audience of a few hundred is not that bad, however -- a better ratio than Vancouver shows usually have). 

There were some very deep dives in the set, at least relative to my knowledge of the band, like "Kill Him" off Wormwood, with its memorable chorus of "God said kill him!" or "Theme from Buckaroo Blues," which morphed into "The Stampede." (I do not know my CUBE-E material at all). You could tell people who did know these songs were very pleased by their inclusion (I might have liked to hear the song off The Mole Trilogy with the chant of, "Let my children live/ in a holy land," which is a weirdly evocative lyric that has been echoing in my head of late, but I had not come expecting any particular tunes and felt privileged that I recognized so many of them. I was mildly surprised that no Third Reich 'n Roll material was repped, but I guess if you open that can of worms, you're committing to a 20-minute set of it, so...). 

Since I see the setlist IS documented, on Setlist FM, I'll leave some of the songs off, here, but the closer to the main set was a terrific twofer of "Hungry Hound" (that's a live clip from a few months ago in Germany that, other than the presence of working multimedia projection, could have been what we saw the other night) and "Die Die Die" (that's a different video from the one I posted previously!). They're both Metal, Meat & Bone songs, which is the one album I would suggest people who know only their early Residents check out, since there is still quite a bit from it on the setlist. The encores were particularly satisfying ("When We Were Young" off The Commercial Album really amped up the energy, as did a rockin' "Diskomo," previously mentioned, And "Nobody Laughs When They Leave," off Freak Show, was a perfect show-closer, but given lie by the enormous grins I saw on the faces of the members of the audience thereafter - a few of whom got to high-five with a fellow in an eyeball mask who worked the crowd towards the end, though whether they were with the band or not is anyone's guess. We may not have been laughing as we left this particular freak show, but we sure were smilin'. While I had enjoyed the elements of overblown, multi-media theatre at the Rio and Randy's cranky, almost standup-comic-like monologues between songs at the Rickshaw, last night was ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, and to be honest... so am I. 

So I am very glad I went. I urge anyone on the fence about catching these shows to do so; they are a very worthy representation of the best of the Residents. If you don't necessarily have a huge investment in the lore of the Residents, if names like Randy Rose and Charles Bobuck (RIP) don't mean much to you, if you don't necessarily want to have your Residents served with between-song creepy mini-movies from the point of view of the mentally ill... if you know your Residents and just want to LISTEN TO THEIR MUSIC...

...this is the tour to catch. 

BTW, if the Singing Resident was no longer the speaking Resident, he kept up a very enjoyable routine of dancing, during the songs, with moves that I suspect probably helped keep his body loose and limber; one wonders if he does tai chi or something to keep fit. The Singing Resident - invisible behind his costume - could have been 25 or something, from how engaged his performance was, but he's a fair bit older than that! And he was in fine voice. There were some really powerful growls and roars for some of the later songs, tho' I cannot say which. He has done a much, much better job - given that he is at least in his mid-70's - of preserving his voice than some much younger singers. It's kind of amazing, really - and makes me hopeful that there will be a live album documenting this tour. I had not planned to go, initially, and am so glad I did. And I'll go the next time they're in town, too...

So see this show if you get the chance! (And note: the film Triple Trouble, which I had speculated was some sort of tour film, in fact is nothing of the sort, and comes out on video this next week and apparently will be in stock at Videomatica, though you can also buy it online. I enjoyed it and am probably going to pick it up. There is another Residents video coming out that day, too, but I do not recall what it is). 

Residents tour dates here! Catch them on their 50th anniversary! Buy or die! 

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