The Residents returned to the stage last year with a show called Disfigured Night. They released an “official bootleg” video, but I wasn’t able to get a hold of one. This album is also touted as an “official bootleg,” but it is of a later performance in San Francisco. I don’t understand that phrase – it seems like an oxymoron. Perhaps it was recorded on amateur equipment. Or maybe there’s a legal issue with the inclusion of “We Are The World,” which I understand is one of the most heavily protected songs in terms of who is allowed to perform it. I sometimes wonder about the relationship The Residents have with the rest of the music business world; it seems they get away with far more than they reasonably should. I suppose they are small enough that nobody gives them notice, but I like to think that the heads of the entertainment industry respect them and let them do what they want.
But on to the album. It is divided into two acts. The first sees them giving live arrangements to selections from their CD-ROM titles. Gingerbread Man is paired with “Jambalaya” and “44” for a section entitled “Louisiana.” Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway are brought together under the banner of “Freaks.” All of the selections carry the themes of loss, regret, and bitterness to varying degrees.
Musically we are reminded, as we almost always are when this group performs live, that there is a trace of a “normal” rock and roll band lurking inside The Residents. At times I almost forget who I’m listening to, but then the lyrics bring me crashing back down to their version of reality. Nowhere is this more prevalent that with the internal monologue sections of the Gingerbread Man songs. On the original album these were rendered as a collage of voices, which was very effective in evoking the way thoughts pile up on each other. But that works best on a recorded medium, one that is intended to be listened to again and again. A live performance is a different beast, and the decision to pull those thoughts into the forefront was a wise one.
After a brief intermission (swapping the CDs), the second act begins. This is the main attraction of the evening, Disfigured Night. It is a mostly spoken piece, not unlike God In Three Persons in that respect, but there are no individual song titles here, emphasizing its singular nature. The title is obviously a reference to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night – one of the earliest works of a man who has no doubt been an influence on The Residents. The title aside, there is little that can be directly pointed to in the ways of similarity, or at least none that I can recognize. Both pieces concern a changing relationship of two protagonists, but that’s common enough to not be worth considering.
The story woven here is expectedly atypical. It concerns an empath who delights in the suffering of others, but by the end learns about himself and others, and ends with a rendition of “We Are The World,” the song written (and forever stuck in our brains) to bring awareness to famine in Africa.
The treatment of the song feels a bit mocking at times, particularly during the chorus, but the verses come off as honest and heartfelt – they dislike the pop catchiness but support the underlying message. Given their unorthodox attitude towards music, it’s easy to forget they came out of the hippie culture of 1960s San Francisco. But that’s only because the era was short lived, giving us very little to characterize it. We remember the peace and love aspect, but often overlook its skeptical nature. The hippie aesthetic also had a healthy distrust of conventional wisdom and authority – principles which took a life of their own in the punk movement – and The Residents are quite possibly the embodiment of what would have happened should flower power have continued on to this day.