Band of the Day

2012.10.20

Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

A nine-piece powerhouse puts a thundering twist on classic soul
How many feathers does it take to make a bird fly? Or make you pass me by, there’s no knowing.
lyrics from Millie Mae

Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds is a nine-piece powerhouse that puts a modern spin on classic soul. The band is led by Arleigh Kincheloe (Sister Sparrow), whose astoundingly powerful voice and sly demeanor make for a spellbinding presence onstage. She is backed by the mighty force of The Dirty Birds, a flock of eight men who masterfully lay down thundering grooves and soaring melodies. While each of the Birds are capable of lighting up the stage with jaw-dropping displays of musicianship, it's clear they're focused on delivering the band's infectious music as a single entity. Simply put, the band's live show is explosive.

Dynamic singer and front-woman Sister Sparrow first began penning tunes in the alleyways and back roads between New York City and the Catskill Mountains as a teenager. Though already aided and abetted by her harmonica-shredding brother Jackson, it was clear that a large, powerful band was needed to do justice to the songs she was crafting. The brother and sister team called upon their cousin Bram, a California-bred drummer of considerable prowess, to help them assemble a super-band of epic proportions. Bram brought in childhood friends JJ Byars (alto saxophone) and Ryan Snow (trombone), and Ryan called upon baritone saxophonist and close friend Johnny Butler. Later, the addition of trumpeter Phil Rodriguez completed the unstoppable force of the virtuosic Dirty Birds' horns. The rhythm section was filled out by tapping guitarist Sasha Brown and bassist Aidan Carroll, a tandem that proved to be the perfect engineers of the hard-driving, bare-knuckle grooves that propel this ferocious group.

It was evident from the start that the deep friendships among its members translated directly to the music they made together. While Sister Sparrow is the principal songwriter and unifying voice of the band, the Dirty Birds work collaboratively on arrangements. The result is musical creativity and diversity seldom seen in groups of this size and character. By the middle of 2009, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds had packed New York's legendary Rockwood Music Hall every Saturday night, holding down a five-month-long residency that built them a reputation for being one of the funkiest, tightest groups in the city. Fueled by the band's boundless energy, every show turned into a wild dance party, and the Dirty Birds established a rabid following of fans eager to receive a potent dose of good times, delivered by the band night after night.

Within six months of their November 2010 debut release on Modern Vintage Recordings, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds had opened for the Black Keys, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Rebirth Brass Band, and the Soul Rebels Brass Band, among others. Through appearances at such festivals as moe.down, Strange Creek, Camp Jam, Sterling Stage, and late-night at New Orleans JazzFest, they continued to gain wider acclaim. In the spring of 2011, they embarked on an extensive national tour that continues through year’s end and includes performances at Gathering of the Vibes and Bear Creek.

Sister Sparrow's commanding stage presence alone is more than enough to dazzle audiences, but the magic doesn't end with her: the band's palpable camaraderie, undeniable talent and passion for music makes for a contagious combination that is taking the country by storm. Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds' blend of seductive soul and dirty blues-rock reminds audiences why they love live music.

How many feathers does it take to make a bird fly? In the case of Brooklyn, New York’s Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, it’s nine. The band is a nine-piece powerhouse of family members and childhood friends, fronted by Arleigh Kincheloe (a.k.a Sister Sparrow). Together they’ve been putting a modern spin on classic soul and funk sounds since releasing their self-titled album in 2010. The album includes gems like “Boom Boom,” which starts off with a rolling drum beat before going into a funkified reggae feel with the addition of horns and a palm-trees-swaying-in-the-breeze rhythm. A harmonica comes in, courtesy of Kincheloe’s brother Jackson, giving the song an unexpected (but welcome) down-home, roots rock twist.

Similar to “Boom Boom,” “Vices” also has the kind of vintage reggae/early ska feel that’s perfectly suited to leaning back and letting Kincheloe’s warm, slightly sassy vocals envelop you. The chorus lists different vices (“whiskey/gin/wine/PCP/whiskey/rum”), before going into a repetition of “peer pressure.” Looking back further in time is “Quicksand,” which has a an early rock ‘n’ roll, let’s-twist-again rhythm and an awesome harmonica breakdown. “Who Are You?” plays off of the melody from the Edvard Grieg classic, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” turning it into a horn-heavy funk fest.

Following up their debut is 2012’s Pound Of Dirt, a 12-song album that expands on their soulful sound. “Hollow Bones” is a slower, bluesier number that has Kincheloe showing off a grittier texture to her voice, while “Too Much” mixes heavy rock guitars, countrified harmonica licks, and funky horns with her powerful vocals. Most recently, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds have been making waves opening for Allen Stone (who we featured on 3/3/12), turning concerts into wild, sweaty dance parties. Whether listening to them at home, or grooving along with the sweaty masses, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds give a sense of boundless energy that’s hard to ignore.