By Brandon Goei
What did you do on Saturday night? I, for one, watched three grown men tell ghost stories incognito; two of them faceless in red-sequined tailcoats and one wrinkly old man in a bathrobe, boxer shorts and clown shoes. Rising from the haze of the onstage fog machine came a cooing (but hardly soothing) lullaby of “Love is like a little lamb, looking for a hunk of ham.” Yes, The Residents were in town.
Two evening performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, March 26, marked the last of the Residents’ Midwest stops of The Talking Light tour. Knowing them exclusively from their bizarre back catalog and their infamous eyeball mask/dancing tuxedo garb, I had no idea what to expect from their live set. What I got was a maze of echoes and lights, and a set of playfully horrific storytelling that made the hairs on the back of my neck dance around like the masked men onstage.
The theme of the night was ghost stories, and to add the experience, the stage was dressed as a living room scene, complete with fireplace and throw rug. Frontman Randy, dressed as a strange caricature akin to one’s creepy old grandfather, spun his yarns in full character, offering backing statements like “It’s true! It’s true!” in his northern Louisiana drawl. Bob and Chuck (guitar and keyboards, respectively) provided the sonic ambiance for Randy’s twisted fairy tales, in David-Lynch-meets-Danny-Elfman flourishes. The Residents were true masters of atmosphere, bridging nightmarish fugue and subconscious narrative with ghostly howls and disorienting sweeps of light.
But behind the confusion and perplexity was an even deeper theme; one of the humor and tragedy intrinsic in interpersonal relationships. Each story told was graphic and horrifying, with scenes depicting boiling water pouring over faces and skeleton babies clutching cursed wedding rings, but each narrative sought out and exploited the funny little details that left the audience intermittently chuckling to themselves or howling with laughter, almost guiltily so.
One such horror-based theme was that of the “Mirror People”, which Randy referred to after nearly every song by screaming into the microphone about their ability to become imposters of their real-world counterparts. After about two or three hysterical fits onstage, the audience seemed to have caught on to the gimmick, responding to the patronizing fright with equally patronizing laughter. And when Randy pointed a mirror into the crowd, resulting in a standard stage lighting trick (there were more flashing lights than a flock of paparazzi at a Hollywood premier), the audience was less than impressed. Much more poignant was the pretext of the stunt, which is to say that the “Mirror People” were us in the audience, and that our loving gaze and interaction with each other spark strange and grotesque acts.
In that way, the show was great, even if it was a show that could only succeed ironically. After all, if you trekked to River North and paid to get into the venue, it meant that you had a certain amount of adoration for the Residents, which they might argue is enough to incite some face-boiling, sleepwalk-murdering, hellbound-infant action.