By Joey Tayler
You go to a live show to get up close and personal with a band, because even nosebleed seats at the United Center are nearer to the music than your stereo or iPod. Maybe you want to share an intimate conversation with your favorite singer-songwriter. Maybe you want to get buzzed off screaming guitars rattling your ear drums. Maybe you want to sing-a-long to that ballad you loved when you were fifteen with a packed house, and feel strangers connect with each other through the beauteous harmony of a shared song.
Or maybe you walk into a Milwaukee bar at 8 PM on Labor Day ... and you're the only one there.
"Free show! Free show!" advertised one of the servers as I sat with maybe six other people at the Sugar Maple's bar, nursing a Sprecher Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale and waiting for Madison's Sleeping in the Aviary to unpack. The thin crowd saved me a $5 cover, which I invested in coffee-chocolaty Dragon's Milk Ale, and put the few Aviary fans on hand in an awkward position. How close, really, do you want to get to an authentic rock-and-roll madman like Elliott Kozel, who spends a typical SITA set quivering center stage, strung-out on memories of bitter romances and violent flights of fancy until something finally snaps. Then off they go, Kozel pogoing around bassist Phil Mahlstadt, drummer Michael Sienkowski, and accordian/saw player Celeste Heule as they all careen from playful kitch pop to nightmare punk that scared the shit out of an unsuspecting, white-haired Summerfest crowd in August. Sleeping in the Aviary sound something like a Quentin Tarantino movie -- the laughs hit as fast and as hard as the bullets, the guitars and drums even faster, and often it's not until the band is halfway through the next song that you figure out (to paraphrase the line that set off those Summerfesters) if Kozel would actually beat his fictitious daughter for looking like her fictitious mother. One minute you're cackling at the band's black comic audacity and velocity, the next Kozel snarls a hateful barb that has you squirming away from the stage.
Except Sugar Maple doesn't even have a stage to flee, just a small back room with some benches and tables cozying up to whoever's playing. The close quarters surprised even Kozel, who opened the show quipping to all 25 of us, "Welcome to 'VH1 Storytellers.' I'm Bono. This [Mahlstadt] is the Edge." Sienkowski introduced himself as "Bono's drummer." Throughout the set, Kozel mixed in "Storyteller"-style "anecdotes" about how he wrote these songs while riding on a train with Billy Corgan in Germany, or fishing with Iggy Pop, or flying first-class with David Bowie and his dog.
Despite the band's good humor, this wasn't an ideal venue for SITA's high-speed intensity -- Kozel couldn't remember the last time he'd sat down while performing -- and they compensated by leaning on their poppier side, letting the sparkling songcraft shine a little brighter than it might at full volume. Before I'd heard Kozel mourn a kinky lover who tragically forgets her safe-word, I couldn't imagine an S&M song my mom might like. But Sienowski and Mahlstadt joined Kozel's yelp with lovely harmonies on the bouncy chorus -- "Lips as fresh as honeydew/Dried and cracked and powder blue" -- that made the ditty go down easier than it might otherwise. Whether or not you're into whips and ball-gags, you can't help but chuckle at Kozel's ingenious riff on love gone very, very wrong. On "Folk Song" ("I wrote this sitting in a tepee with Bob Dylan") Kozel finds love, a new house, fame, and fortune, "And the very next day I died," a sly parody of woe-is-me country, and yet still, thanks to those unexpected harmonies, sad and pretty on its own hard luck terms. Even when Kozel gargled his beer to play drowning lovers on a sinking cruise ship, the band skirted novelty with the sea chantey sighs of Heule's accordion, and Kozel's own near-Method dedication to the bit.
In place of a typically manic set, the unironic moments showcased the depth of the Sleeping in the Aviary's talent. The band came closest to its usual frenzy on "Dick Gere," with Kozel warbling a ramshackle rant against workaday blues and an unfaithful woman that takes an ambiguous and probably violent turn for the worst en route to a graveyard. And, as on 2008's "Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel," SITA saved the best for last: "Windshield," a car-crash eulogy for broken hearts and battered bodies that's like REM's "Nightswimming" hung over on the Stones' "Wild Horses." The crowd, such as it was, refused to leave on that beautiful down note, and the band obliged with an about-face, one last great gag to send us back to our microbrews smiling: Kozel, Mahlstdt, and Sienkowski belted the theme to "America's Funniest Home Videos" as a drunken alt-country cry from America's reality-TV, fame-whore black soul, and introduced a friend in the audience as Bob Saget.
So turns out I was wrong to worry. The closer you get to Sleeping in the Aviary, the more there is to love.
Stop by Sleeping in the Aviary's page and give them a listen. Click here....