The Residents performed at the Kessler for a two-night stand last weekend, and the extremely rehearsed show saw the group straddling the various paradoxes that have delightfully plagued them in a 40-year-plus career. Those contradictions include a balance between being anonymous, and yet wanting to spill historical anecdotes and statistics between songs; maintaining the illusion of randomness with strictly disciplined theatrics; and finally, the seemingly complete disregard for commercial aspirations with a futuristic brand of capitalist instinct that rivals their most forward-thinking music.
After all, when your entire concept covers you from head-to-toe and is wrapped around your albums, your shirts, your buttons, and more, the merchandise possibilities are ripe. The group jumped on various new technologies through the decades as they came and went, creating inventively strange music videos before the form had become cliched, tinkering with CD-Roms, and wrapping limited-edition records in pieces of Christo’s installations.
Yet, the Residents aren’t for everyone, and they pride themselves on that, while still demanding to be noticed, bragging about how they mischievously sent their music to both Nixon and the Beatles. And while Nixon and the Beatles are some of the 20th Century’s most recognizable figures, the Residents too possess an admirable patch of iconographic real estate.
The crowd at the Kessler on Friday represented that age spectrum quite noticeably, and included people old enough to have read about the group in Creem magazine as well as a 20-something woman I overheard bragging about how she was wearing her Residents-founded, Ralph Records pin, specially for the show. “It’s an original. From the 70s,” she said.
Though irreverent jokes about sex toys and not being able to make it in low-rent pornography were littered throughout the performance from singer “Randy” in a Santa costume, there were also touching and necessary tributes to the late Residents’ collaborator, Snakefinger, a tragically uncelebrated musician who played violin and guitar with the same mix of bizarreness and ability employed by the group. But Snakefinger AKA Philip Charles Lithman was bizarrely normal in a way that the Residents were not. He played in a highly traditional blues group in the early seventies, and his technique is such that even a conservatory-trained musician could respect it. His version of the unparalleled soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone’s “Magic and Ecstasy,” summarizes Snakefinger’s combination of the gorgeous and the weird rather succinctly. The Residents felt indebted enough to open the show with “Picnic in the Jungle,” a track they cowrote from the same record, and a couple of odes to Snakefinger were welcome, especially after the group’s last speech-heavy tour, which by all accounts did not do the group’s legacy justice.
Snakefinger died young in 1987, at age 38, which the group mentioned during the performance. His impact seems to carry more weight than ever with a band pondering over forty years in a cruel industry with which they never played nice. Seven years after Snakefinger’s death the Residents saw the death of another young artist through an impossibly jaded, collective “eye”:
Maybe if I put a bullet in my brain/They’d remember me like Kurt Cobain
And the parasites on MTV/Would wipe their eyes and act like they knew me
You have to wonder if the group feels as harshly as they did when they recorded this song, aptly titled, “The Aging Musician.” But that was almost twenty years ago. The singer jokes about how their sarcastically-titled Commercial Album sold 25,000 copies, which was a lot for the Residents during the Reagan Era. But then, “Randy” acknowledges a fact as true as the mythology he has fabricated over four decades: It’s a lot today, too.
All photos by Andi Harman.