The Residents at The Chapel, by William Wayland
The Residents (photo: William Wayland)

The Residents. No other musical ensemble has ever come close to making stranger, funnier, scarier, or more disturbingly rewarding music than the Residents. Last week, the band performed back-to-back nights at the Chapel on April 5 and 6, and it was the strangest musical experience I've ever had.

Lore has it that this band, born from Louisiana, hit the road in the 1960s. When their van broke down in San Mateo, they stayed. Soon after, their debut LP, Meet The Residents (an unapologetic nod to the Beatles' first Capitol record), hit stores.

Meet The Residents remains the group's most easily accessible and digestible material. For the uninitiated, the rest of their collection can be more work to dig through than most. This is also a band that continues to operate in near total secrecy. The band members' identities have been unknown since the beginning. Granted, personnel changes have been recorded — the current guitarist reportedly joined the group around 1998.

The Residents at The Chapel, by Joshua Huver

Most eye-conically, the Residents are known for their logo of a tuxedoed form with a singular, large eyeball instead of a head beneath a top hat. But various concepts, tours, and visions of the group and their experimental noise have been constantly evolving. Less like a band and more of a fluid concept, the most important thing is to not get lost in the unknowable. Rather, appreciate the show — the "show" being any sort of performance they decide to deliver, from a pre-recorded clip, an actual performance, or what happens in the theater of your mind.

I was first introduced to the Residents in middle school — maybe earlier — by a friend in my class. I gave them a shot, but my brain was wired for punk rock and I didn't have time for meandering noise. The noise I wanted was fast, loud, and to the point. When I learned that I might have an opportunity to catch the band myself, in the flesh, in San Francisco, I jumped.

Tension built every day leading up to the Residents' back to back evenings at the Chapel last week. Once I arrived, the realization that I need to be able to recount my experience hit. I didn't know the names of any songs or albums, and I didn't know the names of the characters on the stage. My love of going in blind to be fully immersed in a new experience seemed to get the best of me, but I was able to snap a photo of the set list. So come with me as we digest this together.

The Residents at The Chapel, by Joshua Huver

Immediately, the large, inflatable sphere with the logo projected onto the center, set on a pedestal against a backdrop that mimicked the Bavarian flag, let me know this was going to be weird. A 9pm door time was pushed to 9:30, and having arrived right at 9, I was grateful.

The lights went down, and three band members walked on stage. They were clad in suits that blended with the backdrop, white bowler hats, and identity-obfuscating masks similar to those worn by plague doctors. The guitarist was furthest to the right. The drummer, on an electronic drum kit, followed leftward. A keyboardist on two keyboards rounded out all of the (immediately visible) musical instruments on stage.

Not long after beginning, the lead singer appeared, launching the audience to a attention. Between the endless amounts of vocal effects and over-emphasized exertions, there was an older man in a cow costume and a polka-dot tuxedo jackect and matching cummerbund. A song I later learned was called "Jelly Jack & The Boneless Boy" was followed up with "Mickey the Mumbling Midget." Both songs appear on the 1990 album Freak Show, where, you guessed it, each song embodies its own character.

The Residents at The Chapel, by Joshua Huver

The lead singer was incredibly theatrical in his demonic portrayal. The Satanic voice modulation reminded me more of blink-182's
"Satan voice" than anything. But after a while it stopped being funny and it the terrible, terrifying angle that they were going for was realized.

Occasionally between songs a projector would play a movie across the now blank crystal ball became a movie screen. This happen four times throughout the show, and each story featured a prominent figure from history or folklore talking about a dream they had.

First, there was "The Cowboy Dream": A horrifying clown-demon's face was animated to the voice of what could only have been Sam Elliott reprising his role as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski. "The Black Behind" followed. The progressive metal guitar lines held incredible control while the lead vocalist yelled himself nearly hoarse.

The Residents at The Chapel, by Joshua Huver

The second dream sequence featured Mother Teresa talking about a trainwreck dream that she had. The video led into a pair of selections from The Residents' most recent release, 2017's The Ghost of Hope. Beginning with "Death Harvest," the song shifted into "Train vs Elephant," the B-side from their latest record's lead single. Coincidentally, the entire album is based on the perils of traveling by train and based on true stories.

The third and the most memorable dream sequence featured Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate Scandal. The sequence, title "Nixon Sings The Blues," saw the lead singer employ a harmonica for a few songs. "Tell Me" and the despair-inducing echo chamber that was "Die Die Die" featured some of the most exciting guitar solos of the night.

The fourth and final dream, John Wayne's "The Ballerina Dream," segued quickly into "Africa Tree." The set ended with "Tourniquet of Roses" and a looped, barking series of modulated vocals repeating the line "so there is no more left to say now" was left playing while everyone walked off stage one by one.

The two-song encore featured some of the most mind-bending psychedelia of the evening, however. Beginning with a medieval and Western combination guitar clinic and ending with a haunting twist on Hank Williams classic "Six More Miles," the Residents solidified themselves as one of, if not the, most-mind bending live music experiences I've ever had.

Additional photos by Joshua Huver

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