Review by Fred Rudofsky
If you could bottle up the zest for life and music that Brooklyn-based Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds bring to the stage every night, you could sell it and put every psychiatrist, religious zealot, political pundit and self-help author out on the street. These eight extraordinary musicians – led by a powerful singer who mesmerizes the moment she first steps up to the microphone – can prescribe the cure for whatever ails you when they come to town.
Greeted by a sold-out crowd in Pittsfield’s cozy venue the Garage (located in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre), Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds brought their potent mix of blues, soul, jazz and good-time funky mayhem for nearly two hours. After opening with a blazing instrumental driven by the boisterous blues harp of Jackson Kincheloe and four of the best horn players around, Arleigh “Sister Sparrow” Kincheloe (“five feet of heaven”, as David Lynch would say) hit the stage for the sultry N’Awlin’s soul of “Untie My Shoelaces,” rocking the crowd with the chorus, “It’s got to be right!,” and turning the spotlight on a righteous trombone solo by Ryan Snow. The bluesy swagger of “Rock in It,” set in motion by drummer Bram Kincheloe, enticed the crowd shake it on down at the stage front; the song ended with the band actually crouched down!
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with dancing tonight!” announced Sister Sparrow as the band kicked into “No Rest” from their just-released “Pound of Dirt” album. The many tempo shifts appealed to the dancers, and a rock steady interlude accentuated the rhythm guitar work of Sasha Brown and bass lines of Aidan Carroll. “Millie Mae” and “Make It Rain,” the opening to tracks to the new album, packed a wallop, too, with Ms. Kincheloe investing each lyric with feeling.
“Guns” mixed Latin cadences with oscillating harmonica – chromatic, perhaps? – and Sister Sparrow was dancing around the bandstand beatifically. “Boom Boom,” from their eponymous 2010 debut, drew upon their love of Jamaican music, stacking the horns and allowing for ripping solos by trumpeter Phil Rodriguez and alto saxophonist J.J. Byars, before closing with an a cappella call and response. “Hollow Bones,” featuring baritone saxophonist Johnny Butler, transfixed with its stark lyrics and eerie harmonies.
Jackson Kincheloe torn into his harmonica for the aptly-named “Bulldozer,” initially a solo showcase before the band gradually played themselves into a Mississippi frenzy before fading out again. All this was a brilliant prelude to “Too Much,” a song from “Pound of Dirt” that merits several replays in a row. Live, this song was even more addictive, with a riffs and solos midway by Brown that brought to mind Steve Cropper meets Johnny Winter. All during the song, Sister Sparrow was a soaring kinetic vision, pogo-dancing and and testifying the lyrics.
Not many bands have the guts or chops to own a Rolling Stones classic, but don’t tell that to this band, who practically owned it. Hearing Arleigh Kincheloe and company rev up “Miss You” a few notches is something to behold. “Lasso” sounded great live, with the horns and drums locked into the groove, while Sister Sparrow channeled her inner Betty Davis (the singer, not the actress) with a growling low register. “My House” slowed things down but never lost the intensity – indeed, the song called to mind the work of Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint – and the trombone solo by Snow was right on the money.
“Crawdaddies,” as always, was a delight to hear; it featured an extended solo by Butler, who coaxed earthy and unworldly sounds from his baritone sax, full of humor and adventure. The shift from bebop to the bacchanal of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” was exhilarating, with Sister Sparrow’s bluesy voice inspiring a call and response from band and crowd alike on, “Let it roll, baby, roll!” With the crowd clamoring for an encore, the nine returned to the stage for fan favorite “Roadtrip” from the band’s debut, with solos galore and the hollered chant of “The times were early, the times were early” closing out a super Thursday night performance twelve minutes later.
SISTER SPARROW & THE DIRTY BIRDS SET LIST
Untie My Shoelaces
Rock It In
Make It Rain
Bulldozer > Too Much
Miss You (Rolling Stones)
Roadhouse Blues (the Doors)