Islington’s Union Chapel seems a fitting venue for a show about ghosts, romanticism and nostalgia. This is billed as the 40th anniversary tour of East Coast hippie pranksters The Residents and what could go down on stage is up in the air.
From the beginning, it appears tonight is going to be an exploration of tropes such as identity, media subversion, popular culture’s dependence on folklore, how we respond to the mythologies we revere, and through to more pressing concerns for the performers such as the struggle for relevance, the encroachment of death and the importance of honouring our legacies.
From the blue tinged mists, beneath a glowing eyeball, appears first, a keyboardist to steady claps. Then comes the guitarist, and finally a drummer to take their place, all decked out in matching turquoise harlequin suits, and wearing ill-fitting plague doctor masks. From their inception, the collective has eschewed notions of celebrity and yet, here is an obvious front man, dressed in a bovine onesie with oversized rubber snout and skinny black sunglasses, sneering and snarling. The crowd gives a minor ripple of approval as he takes his place to the side of the stage and begins what appears to be satanic yowling. Is the costume a critique of the notion of a cash cow, being dragged out year after year in order to sustain financial status and placate adoring fans, or is it a critique on ecology and commerce? Maybe, just maybe, it’s comfy and fun to prance about in.
The first couple of songs are low on energy and high on oddity, with lyrics about freak show babies and deformed monstrosities. It’s all highly vaudevillian and to be expected. Things only really pick up once they have the first of four video interludes, a haunting CGI baby, possibly played by the evil ox, talking about the railroads and pining for the Wild West. Other performers will be Richard Nixon talking about deciding to become a blues singer, John Wayne getting emotional, and Mother Theresa making not particularly subtle jokes about dams and hairless beavers!
These interludes help to set the atmosphere but perhaps due to the venue’s residential setting or because of the performers advanced years, the sound generated is never loud. Everything is moderate, almost considered. The guitarist has a hair metal axe in his hands and an army of effects pedals at his disposal, yet he is never quite sure if he wants to unleash his inner Les Claypool or Neil Young or if he’s there to subvert notions of rock and roll expectation and revel in Brechtian tomfoolery.
The players are all experts in setting tone and generating emotion but as soon as you find yourself getting accustomed to the magnetic drones and waves of feedback as they build a hushed resonance around the chapel, the music suddenly cuts short, the lights dim and you are brought back to the present. This is going to be reverie but on the band’s terms.
A familiar two chord rumble begins, notes randomly plucked but then a melody launches, older than bones, and the singing cow begins spasmodically reciting recognizable phrases and this is a cover of James Brown’s It’s A Man’s World. It stutters and tumbles awkwardly and is instantly reminiscent of Devo’s sexless mechanical take on (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The first of two covers, the other being a snarling take on Elvis Presley’s Teddy Bear, it reveals that the band seem genuinely fond of these numbers and the loss now on display is for the cynicism or anarchism they once took pride in conceptually.
The rest of the set is well received but all rather sedate and standard. Song titles entitled Die Die Die and Hunger Hound are musically perfunctory and acceptably quirky. Their final number Tourniquet Of Roses ends with a looping chorus of “is no more to say now, is no more to say” and as they file off the stage, you have to believe them.