Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds are a "soulful-rock / rhythm & blues band out of Brooklyn, NY" (3 of the Dirty Birds originated in San Francisco) that has been touring extensively in support of their sophomore album Pound Of Dirt. They are gaining momentum for their live shows, having already landed opening spots with Dr. John, The Black Keys, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, (among many others). Recently, they played 3 sets at Bonnaroo, a set at Summer Camp, a set at CBGB Festival, and SXSW with an upcoming spot at Telluride Jazz Festival. This Saturday night, the monster combo rolls into the Boom Boom Room on Fillmore.
According to the band's website, “You gotta eat a pound of dirt before you die.” That little twist on an old American proverb provides an album title (Pound of Dirt), a lyric and an underlying philosophy for Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds.
“That lyric sums up our new record,” says frontwoman Arleigh Kincheloe (aka Sister Sparrow, who boasts impressive pipes that recall the likes of Aretha and Bonnie Raitt). “There’s creatively more weight here than what we’ve done before. We spent more time on it, there are bigger themes, and it’s better produced. This album is how we’ve always wanted to present ourselves to the world.”
But the world had already noticed. Since forming in 2008, Sister Sparrow’s mix of thick grooves, sultry vocals and heavyweight horns (not to mention some killer harmonica) has caught the ears of some pretty big names; the group’s already landed gigs with Levon Helm, Warren Haynes, Donald Fagen, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Sharon Jones, as well as slots on major music festivals including, Gathering of the Vibes, Bear Creek, moe.down, Catskill Chill, among many others.
Pretty impressive for a young band, and a testament to their talent and passion. But in a way, Sister Sparrow and her bandmates have been prepping for their moment in the spotlight for a long time. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York with a country music singing mom and a drummer dad, Kincheloe got a lot of early exposure to music. “Even as a toddler I was always dancing and singing, even before I knew what was going on,” she says. “And it helped that my parents were supportive and bad-ass musicians.”
As she grew older, Kincheloe started writing and performing, incorporating her brother Jackson [harmonica] and cousin Bram [drums] into the mix. The family connection actually helped birth a name—and a mission—for her music. “The name came before the band,” remembers the singer. “My brother was saying ‘dirty birds’ a lot, and we were calling our sister ‘Mama Quail.’ She said, if I’m that, you gotta be ‘Sister Sparrow.’ That kind of helped me form a vision of where I wanted to go with my music. And then with the help of my brother and cousin, we got this gaggle of kids together to form a group.”
Moving to NYC, cousin Bram brought in childhood friends J.J. Byars (alto saxophone) and Ryan Snow (trombone), who in turn recruited baritone saxophonist and close friend Johnny Butler. With the addition of trumpeter Phil Rodriguez, guitarist Sasha Brown and bassist Aidan Carroll, the Dirty Birds band line-up was set.
Word of their boisterous live show spread quickly. Soon after forming, the group was headlining a five-month residency at the famous downtown venue Rockwood Music Hall and fielding tour offers from national bands. “Our live shows get sweaty,” says Kincheloe. “We get everyone dancing. We feed off of the audience, and they feed off of us. It’s kind of like a punk show with soul music.”
With a fanbase in place, the group signed to Modern Vintage Recordings and released its self-titled debut in 2010, recorded in one marathon overnight session. “It was a ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ kind of recording,” says Kincheloe. “We loved it, but the record was really a snapshot of our live show.”
For their follow-up Pound of Dirt, the Birds decided to take their time and (slight pun intended) spread their wings. Recorded over two months at The Motherbrain studio in Brooklyn with producer Brian Bender, the group was able to add several layers to their already dynamic sound – now the horns are funkier, the guitars meatier, the drums kick a little more, and the harmonica shreds (see “Make It Rain” and “Too Much” for proof). Tempos and styles shift throughout, with slower grooves like “Millie Mae” and the ballad “Horse to Water” sharing time with full-on soul workouts like “Hollow Bones” and the rock guitar of “Feather of a Queen.” Says the singer: “With the extra time, we got to be more creative, use different amps, drums…we even got Jackson’s bass harmonica at times to sound like an organ.”
If the music is that much more dynamic, there’s an interesting bit of contrast in the lyrics, which show a band and a singer growing wiser from their travels. Kincheloe remains the lyricist and main songwriter, however the band is a collaborative effort, with the entire group responsible for arrangements and fleshing out the songs. “The first record was more from a perspective of when I lived upstate,” the singer explains. “The new songs I wrote in the city—and living in New York, the city really forces you to look at yourself and figure out what’s going on with your life. It’s also about our time on the road and just learning from those experiences.”
With an ambitious new album in tow, the band has big plans for the remainder of 2012, including festivals, Mountain Jam and Summer Camp to name a few, and some more headlining dates, where the new songs can really shine. “I think getting time in the studio has actually helped our live show,” says Kincheloe. “It made us see what more we could do with our music.” But don’t think the group’s recent whirlwind of activity and increased exposure will make the band lose track of what made them so compelling in the first place.
“In the end, we’re a community of minds working together, but we’re also really great friends,” she says. “That adds a lot to the process. We’re having a great time doing this, and you can definitely see and hear that in our music.”
Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds
The Boom Boom Room, 1601 Fillmore
Saturday, July 28th @ 9:30pm