“the great circus train wreck of 1918” – the residents (2017)


Last week, I had the privilege of seeing The Residents perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  It was the loudest show I had ever seen at that venue and was a mesmerizing spectacle to watch.  This was my first time seeing the legendary multimedia avant-garde group live and it was not a show to miss.

For those unfamiliar with The Residents, their story and image outside of their music is also a point of fascination.  They are an American art collective that have been active since 1969.  They combine avant-garde music with multimedia presentations as part of their performances.  These pieces come together to create a sonic and visual aesthetic that puts the audience in a strange dreamscape.

Since the release of their first album Meet the Residents in 1974, they have developed a cult following over the last five decades.  In addition to the strange art music they compose, part of the band’s appeal concerns the mystery that surrounds the group.   The members of the group operate through a management team named the Cryptic Corporation which allows them to maintain a certain level of anonymity.  While the members of the band have changed over the years, very little is known about them.  Early in their career, rumors circulated that the band members were actually the Beatles since Meet the Residents parodied the album cover for Meet the Beatles!

In addition to hiding behind a management company designed to protect their identities, The Residents also wear elaborate costumes that simultaneously protect their identity as well as enhance the visual aspect of the show.  Most famously, the band wears a costume featuring a large eyeball helmet, top hats, and tuxedo; an image that has become iconic for the band.  Their costumes frequently vary, but they are all elaborate and the right amount of creepy.


At the show at Old Town, they stayed true to their signature aesthetic.  The stage featured a large blue and white checkered backdrop with their iconic eyeball breaking up the pattern every so often.  There was also a large giant ball that was used as a screen to project animated videos of people reciting dreams.  On this ball, John Wayne talked about his nightmare of a disappearing ballerina, Mother Theresa shared her dream about a train wreck, a scary clown dreamt about being a cowboy, and Richard Nixon professes his dream of being a blues singer.  These unsettling animated videos appeared after three or four songs and evenly broke up the set.

I had never seen The Residents live before, but I am a little familiar with their music after being turned onto them by a college roommate.  What I expected was what I heard on records before.  I expected strange, high-pitched vocals with various rhythmic noises that sounded like they belonged in a circus (“Constantinople” for example).  However, what I got was much different but incredibly exciting.

Since I had never seen the band before, I didn’t know how faithful they were to the source material.  Based on this performance, I would say rarely.  The show I saw at Old Town was droning, industrial noise rock.  I find that music to be really cool, but this was so unexpected.  I watched each member of the band closely and was amazed by their level of skill and mastery of electronics.  The guitarist was stunning and perhaps one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live.  He style was a progressive rock vibe on par with performers like Frank Zappa or King Crimson.  The guy behind the synthesizer played these great droning pieces that really laid down a template for the show and where the others in the band could start from.

The drum, however, was my favorite.  He played on a small electric kit, but had various sequencers and programming tools that really made his sound bigger than it appeared.  He made sounds and rhythms that suggested he was supported by a larger group of musicians.  I watched him the most because I wanted to discern what sounds he contributed and how he did it.  When he hit a pad and a cymbal noise in reverse played, I was losing it.

The leader singer, an older gentleman and original member, had this great sinister vibe going on.  He would lurch around on stage and appear menacingly as he growled lyrics like Tom Waits.  And for a man his age, he sure had a set of pipes on him as demonstrated by various screams and yells that sounded like he was unleashing hell hounds.


The costumes were excellent as well and added a surreal vibe to a darkly energetic show.  The intimidating lead singer wore a silly cow costume and fake cow nose, but it didn’t detract from his performance.  On the contrary, it elevated it.  The other members were dressed in suits with the same blue and white checkered backdrop.  However, they also wore plague doctor masks, dark lenses, and white bowler hats that added a level of black humor to the whole experience.

The show was absolutely wonderful even if I didn’t recognize most songs.  Turns out that some of the songs are preview tracks for an upcoming blues album.  The album also performed industrial covers of Elvis Presley’s ”(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)”, and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

In 2017, The Residents released their 43rd studio album The Ghost of Hope.  While none of the songs from the album were performed at this show, one of the tracks has callbacks to the Mother Theresa train wreck dream.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is a seven-minute nightmare with drawling vocals, synthesized organ music, and a droning backdrop that sounds ghostly and sinister. In the song, the lead singer is a clown that is having an emotional breakdown following the circus train wreck and reminisces about the funeral the day after the show.  While Mother Theresa’s dream varied slightly in details and delivery, the vibe is similar.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is an uncomfortable, but entrancing listening experience that is not unlike Tom Waits’ spoken interludes like “What’s He Building?” from 1999’s Mule Variations.

The Residents are not for everyone.  It is a strange and polarizing band that is very confusing and sometimes frightening.  However, if you want an unforgettable concert experience, check them out as soon as you can.


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