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Dead dogs still bite for Uncle Bonsai

May lived a dog’s life, and died a poet’s death.

Once living on the streets and eventually blind, the great Labrador’s lot was woe and want until she was taken in by Arni Adler. A happy tale to a point – but fate had different, darkly comic plans, and May found tragic infamy one evening on the steps of Seattle’s St. James Cathedral.

Inside the church, classical musicians solemnly recited a program of sacred music. Perhaps lulled by the dulcet strains – her master, Adler’s husband, was playing the trumpet – May took a wrong step, tumbled off a high ledge in front of the church and breathed her last.

“It was a really spectacular death,” Adler admits in hindsight. “Maybe she just had a heart attack. Maybe she thought, ‘what a good place to die, outside a cathedral.’”

Adler hasn’t written a song about May – yet. But traumatic pet deaths are among the family milestones being explored by venerated folk-pop group Uncle Bonsai.

“We’ve been writing songs, oddly perhaps, on the death of pets. I don’t know why exactly,” Adler admitted, of such new Bonsai songs as “The Fish is in the Freezer” and “The Grim Parade of Cat and Mouse.”

“Perhaps because now we’ve all been parents for a while, and that’s a very poignant part of parenting, dealing with death alongside our children,” she said. “Or, maybe it’s because time’s passing, and, well, don’t fairy tales usually use animals as stand-ins for people? So, perhaps we’re just following in that tradition.”

Uncle Bonsai returns to Bainbridge this Friday for a 7:30 p.m. show at Island Center Hall, the trio’s third visit in as many years.

Last fall’s appearance delighted a capacity crowd from the very first moment, when Adler and bandmates Andrew Ratshin and Ashley O’Keeffe hushedly intoned the words “the baby’s head is a hexagon,” and the evening went sideways from there.

The Seattle-based vocal trio established themselves as darlings of college radio in the 1980s with a repertoire of wry, finely observed meditations on the vagaries of life and love – “Boys Want Sex in the Morning” being perhaps the best remembered – songs that are by turns casually cynical and surprisingly affecting.

They disbanded in 1989, but recently have reunited for a few performances each year. Ratshin keeps the band’s catalog in circulation on his Yellow Tail Records imprint, and he and Adler have been working up new material.

They’d planned on writing a children’s album, but found the songs skewed by Bonsai’s peculiar sensibilities, dead pets and all. Soon, the children’s album morphed into a parents’ album.

“That’s been kind of a funny turn,” Adler said. “I guess it’s funny. A grim, morbird turn.”

That the new material is informed by the concerns of parenting and melancholy memories of the band members’ own childhoods is natural. Adler’s only son will soon head off to college – “a poignant time of life,” she says – while Ratshin and O’Keeffe have young children of their own.

The years and the miles take a toll on the ensemble itself. O’Keeffe lives and works in distant Iowa, so every Uncle Bonsai concert feels closer to a day when, like a beloved goldfish or a faithful dog, it’s all just a memory.

Adler is keenly aware of this point.

“Ashley’s coming back always seems like this is going to be the last time,” she said. “It’s always really a big strain for her to come, she’s got little kids. We always feel like, well, who knows how long this is going to last?”

It will last at least one more show, and likely one more album; it’s hard to break up a family, as which after some 20 years, Uncle Bonsai certainly qualifies.

Too, there’s this whole new vein of subject matter to mine for songs.

Adler cites a comment by Maurice Sendak, whose fantastic “Where the Wild Things Are” has gleefully warped the imaginations of several generations of youngsters.

“Invariably, something is going to go wrong in childhood, and you’re going to spend the rest of your life tripping over it,” Adler recalls the author saying. “I think that’s really right.”

Seattle folk-pop trio Uncle Bonsai returns to Island Center Hall at 7 p.m. Friday. Singer/songwriter Matt Price opens. Tickets are $17 advance at Vern’s Drug and Glass Onion, $20 day of show. Doors open at 7 p.m., showtime at 7:30. Information: www.unclebonsai.com, www.yellowtailrecords.com.

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