Review by Fred Rudofsky
There are some bands that have to be seen, even late into a school night – Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds may just top that select list, as many would attest after an electrifying Thursday show (December 5) at the Hollow in Albany.
Based out of Brooklyn but sporting some deep upstate roots, the seven-piece combo led by dynamic lead singer Arleigh “Sister Sparrow” Kincheloe pulled the crowd right up to the front, opening with a new song, “Borderline.” The party was on. Bram Kincheloe (drums), Josh Myers (bass) and Sasha Brown (guitar) established a staccato funk that made the semi-rapped lyrics edgy, and the harp solo by Jackson Kincheloe downright hellacious.
“Make It Rain” from Pound of Dirt had the dance floor filled with fans and newbies, and featured full throttle trombone solos by Ryan Snow. Sister Sparrow honored an early request (“Don’t Be Jealous”), flipping her black leather clad hips and long brown hair to the bluesy beat and purring out the lyrics like a smiling angel raised in Muscle Shoals Studios. “The Long Way,” a road-tested uptempo blues showcase that appears on the recent four-song EP, Fight, had hands clapping to some fine chromatic harp work. “Millie Mae” and “Hollow Bones,” two mainstays in the band’s set list since 2012, provided fantastic outlets for the musicians and audience to stretch out – the former was a revved up stew of horns and blues harp through a Leslie effect, the latter a spooky dirge with Sister Sparrow slinking around the stage making eye contact with everyone as she sang in a low, raspy tone. It takes guts to cover a Michael Jackson song and do it right, but the band nailed it with a slow-cooker rendition of “The Way You Make Me Feel”, with Bram Kincheloe and Josh Myers adding a slight P-Funk feel to it all.
Yet the emphasis was, rightly so, on original material. Dedicating the unreleased “Prison Cells” to “best friends,” Sister Sparrow’s cadence had a New Orleans vibe, shifting with ease to the tempos provided by Bram’s stellar stick work. “Lasso” and hints of ska in “Another Ride” brought whoops and hollers from longtime fans in the crowd, while “Sugar” (a rare acoustic guitar and blues harp slow jam), “Fight” and “Mama Knows” (“That’s perhaps my favorite new one,” remarked Arleigh Kincheloe after the show) suggest that their fan base will only grow. Jackson Kincheloe introduced “Too Much” with a mesmerizing harp solo of “Amazing Grace,” dedicated to beloved teacher who had died the week before. The crowd clapped and stomped along during “Too Much,” and Brown’s slide guitar work was just as riveting as Snow’s trombone’s meshing with Phil Rodriguez’s trumpet. At the heart of it all, Sister Sparrow was magnetic, belting out the chorus like Tina Turner, Annie Wilson and Irma Thomas all rolled into one.
Coaxed back out for an encore, the group laid down a nasty blues take of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls,” extending the chorus mode for several minutes because the crowd was just not ready to give up singing and dancing along till midnight had come and gone. Look for Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds to ring in 2014 with a New Year’s Eve party at Club Helsinki in Hudson.
Connor Kennedy, a young singer and guitarist who grew up attending and working at Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, opened on solo electric guitar before gradually calling up members of the Dirty Birds midway through his eight-song set. Despite his youth, Kennedy is an accomplished vocalist; meanwhile, his guitar work is deeply influenced by Albert King, Jim Weider and Larry Campbell. Selections from his recent EP Nothing Lasts: Nothing’s Over suggest that he will be a songwriter to watch. “My Time Has Come” brought to mind Rick Danko and the Allman Brothers sitting together on the porch, while “Let’s Go Home,” with its terse horn lines and references to a free-spirited flower girl in West Virginia, would have sounded right at home in the Band’s set list c. 1971.
SISTER SPARROW & THE DIRTY BIRDS SET LIST
Make It Rain
Don’t Be Jealous
The Long Way
The Way You Make Me Feel (Michael Jackson)
Amazing Grace/Too Much
Fat Bottomed Girls (Queen)