The Seattle trio Uncle Bonsai arrived at the Birchmere Tuesday night with the same kind of advance buzz on the folk circuit that accompanied the Roches and Christine Lavin just before their breakthroughs. Uncle Bonsai writes the same kind of witty satire (and its members wear the same kind of mix-and-match thrift shop outfits), but this new trio has created such a distinctive style that it will have no problem carving out its own niche in the acoustic-music scene.
Andrew Ratshin played terse, rhythmic rock riffs on his acoustic guitar, the group's only instrument, and sang in a near falsetto that harmonized at close intervals with the two women on either side: Arni Adler and Ashley Kristen. This very sparse sound accommodated an unorthodox, unpolished edge to both the melodies and lyrics. For example, "Womb for Rent" began with some funny puns about surrogate motherhood, but Kristen's clipped vocals refused to resolve into a sing-along melody and created the bitter perspective of a poor woman beneath the jokes. Similarly, Ratshin's "Doug at His Mom's" quickly had the audience laughing at the familiar rituals of a family party, but his unyieldingly deadpan delivery also reminded listeners of the awkward feeling at such an event.
In keeping with the spirit of the evening, the local duo Side by Side emphasized the comic and satirical aspects of its folk repertoire in the opening set. The breezy harmonies of Doris Justis and Sean McGhee were as sweet as ever, even on the tongue-in-cheek songs by Lavin, Buskin & Batteau and the singers themselves.