The Residents: Demons Dance Alone
directed by The Residents
starring The Residents
The thing I love best about the Residents is the clash between their high concept existence — a twenty or thirty-year enigma — and their DIY and low-fi, sometimes downright Ed Wood-ish presentation and/or execution. For instance, check out the metal folding chair just hanging out stage left, the GWARish fright masks that the male and female singers wear, the fake beak that the keyboard player has on, the male singer’s southern drawl that makes him sound like one of Jim Henson’s Muppets, or even the modified flashlightlight gloves that the dancing demon is wearing.
There’s an interesting thematical discontinuity going on here. The Demons Dance Alone tour spotlit material that the Residents wrote in the aftermath of September 11th. The accompanying press release takes pains to point out that the songs are not necessarily about the war on terror, though this claim could be Ralph Records psychological warfare. But the striking and eerie visuals that make up Demons Dance Along sure as hell looks like a Grand Guignol production in Baghdad in the middle of the U.S. shock-and-awe campaign. Let me explain. The stage set/atmosphere for this tour (the material was best played in) was to have the stage mostly plunged in absolute darkness, which would make filming difficult in most circumstances. Not for the Residents, they bathed the stage in infrared light and then shot the footage using the Night Mode of the camera. Not only that, but only one camera was used, strapped to a mysterious figure dressed head-to-toe in black, via some strange apparatus.
So we end up with these jarring images that look somewhere between a bombing run, the alien technology in Predator, the Blair Witch Project and the faked rescue of that West Virginia girl from an Iraqi hospital. (Note that it also catches players waiting in the wings for their cue. Nice touch.) Every member of the band looks like a target; an expressionistic mix of orange and red hues that fade to a cold green the farther away the camera gets. Lanterns, spotlights, nightvision — here everything is just a heat signature, a target. We’re all collateral damage now. Not only that, but a number of the Residents are wearing modified camouflage suits to make the illusion/reality complete. It’s fucking groundbreaking, alternately funny and scary as shit and amazingly intimate all at the same time.
Your Residents for the evening consist of (all hooded and masked and camo’d) a guitar player, two keyboard/synth players, and a percussionist playing electric drum pads. The sound they make is simultaneously huge and tinny. The shadowy figure who is the voice of the band serves as a demented master of ceremonies garbed like the Greek tragedy version of the “Grand Wizard of Wrestling.” He is joined by a similarly costumed and frightwigged woman to make the nightmare complete.
The new female vocalist adds a much-needed air of playfulness to the grave proceedings, particularly in the he said/she said interplay of “Mickey Macaroni”. And her dancing is fabulously unhinged and childlike, a perfect counterpoint to the lead Resident’s lurching and hunching, halfway between a preacher and a monster. With that lantern he looks like an undead Diogenes. Her solo turn on “Car Thief” is pretty superb too. And the band behind them, for all their determined, and I do mean determined, weirdness is fucking top-notch — weaving these ghostly mutations of rock, symphony, new wave, no wave, cabaret. Many of the songs in the set are reminiscent of the gorgeous whimsy of the Legendary Pink Dots. There’s a sadder edge to the songs now, a more funeral pace. Elegiac. The most effective and affecting duet between the two is the dour, almost gothic turn of “Caring.” All angular melancholy with the final line of “the night is so starry.” During “Wolverines” a pirouetting demon appears from the audience with two handheld spotlights, making his way towards the stage, chasing away the singer with his arcs of light, before taking a deep stage bow. Between songs the demon goofs around on a trumpet, at one point playing a bastardized version of “Taps,” before mock-saluting.
The delicate, xylophone-led ballad “Mr. Wonderful,” the constantly-altering centerpiece of the show, serves as a microcosm of the weirdness that makes the Residents so wonderful. It’s this beautiful musical reverie, sung by a tone-deaf man impersonating a Southern dialect, which makes it even more touching. But he’s in a folding chair with a blanket over his legs, method-acting the narrator of the song, thinking over his long life, while the demon dances behind a net screen at the back of the stage. It’s filmed with a strange frame filter that makes it look like a black-and-white photo. Following soon after is “Ms. Wonderful” which uses the same musical arrangement (and folding chair) for the female singer to voice her lament over a past of missed opportunities, all while cradling the (adult-sized) demon like the little baby she never had. Oh this is good. “Life Would Be Wonderful,” the third chapter in the trilogy, uses the same musical backdrop (and chair, natch) but this time the male singer turns the lyrics into a bitterly sarcastic broadside against the Residents’ eccentric career path, lamenting Snakefinger’s heart attack, not being able to get on the radio or MTV, the state of popular culture, and being ageing hippies with no agent. But then, as the singer begins a long monologue about meeting James Brown, the demon comes out to tempt the singer with the old eyeball head mask, cradling it gently and circling him with it!! Amazing. Best part of the film. There’s even a short dig about living in a country where they “pimp out war to fuel our SUVs.”
During the melancholy “My Brother Paul” the demon actually lies on the floor and spotlights the male singer’s face with one light, making the song even more poignant. The menacing noise of “Golden Goat” is filmed in lurid red, with jumpy, repetitive editing cuts — over which the guitar player just shreds (for lack of a better word) and the woman singer stands on the chair triumphantly singing her verses, while the demon supplicates at her feet. “Shoe Salesman” is filmed like a collage, with all manner of found footage and editing tricks splicing up the straightforward performance footage, the highlight of which is the male singer fetishizing the female singer’s feet as she sits perched on a chair, soaking up the attention, mirroring the creepy inner monologue of the lyrics. The stylophone (yes!) accented “Honey Bear” is filmed with soft edges and bright colors, ending with a tender embrace on the lip of the stage by the male singer and the demon. It’s oddly touching. “Neediness” begins as a gentle acoustic ballad, but soon devolves into ramped up new wave/rockabilly noise, with a frenetic game of tag between the demon and the male singer. Then the group files offstage.
Encore number, “Demons Dance Alone” is a revelation. High theater in every respect. The tableau begins like a hybrid of Apocalypse Now and Star Wars‘ jawas, with each band member coming back to the stage, one by one, each hangng a lantern on the onstage “trees.” Then the song begins, a brittle, electronic dirge. Each vocalist takes a verse, and then the demon comes out to play a horn solo. At that point, the music steadily climbs upwards towards crescendo, the two singers begin to run circles around the demon (still flailing himself about), they are soon joined by the rest of the band, abandoning their instruments. As they all run a maypole-like circle around the demon, clapping their hands furiously, the unchecked instruments start to decay into abstract noise and as that happens, so do the images on the screen, finally devolving into just jagged shards of light and color. When the picture comes back into slow focus, we see that all have left the stage, save the male singer, who creaks through one last lonely verse, punctuated by him waltzing off the stage, clutching an invisible partner, to an orchestral fanfare. The circle is complete.
Of course they come back, one last time, to take stage bows. Why shouldn’t they? The cameraman attempts to follow the shadowy crew offstage, but he is blinded by a flashlight beam wielded by one of the Residents. When he regains his focus, they’re gone, disappeared. And the mystery is still instact.
A homemade masterpiece in every sense of the word. Now go make your own.
Ralph Records: www.ralphamerica.com