Late last year, roughly a month before New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn-based soul-rock band Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds found themselves in a tight spot. With three studio releases already filed away in the greater songbook, most recently 2015’s stellar The Weather Below, it was finally time to record the group’s—that is known for setting stages ablaze with their super high-energy sound—long-awaited first live album since forming in 2008.
They had a gig all lined up at Daryl’s House in New York (Daryl Hall’s concert venue), production was in order, and excitement levels were high. Then, out of nowhere, Hall decided he wanted to play his joint on NYE, and as Arleigh Kincheloe, frontwoman for the band, says, “We kind of got the rug pulled out from under us.” Only a month out and fearful that their live album dreams would be temporarily dashed, in a spur-of-the-moment effort, they booked the Warehouse at the Fairfield Theatre Co. in Connecticut, sold out the venue in advance, shot a DVD and recorded the two-disc live album Fowl Play, released—much to the delight of fans—this past March.
“It turned out to be the biggest night we’ve ever had because of all the production that went into it. It was incredible,” says Kincheloe from San Francisco during a few-day break from the band’s non-stop touring schedule.
Since, the band has found themselves once again blazing trails across the country in support of those recent efforts, and in April even found themselves performing at the desk of NPR’s Bob Boilen as part of the Tiny Desk Concert series, a moment that Kincheloe says “was such a big win for us.” But days off aside, for Kincheloe (nicknamed Sister Sparrow) and her backing Dirty Birds, on stages, under the bright lights and throwing everything they’ve got at audiences is where she, as a singer, and this raucous seven-piece—which, in addition to Kincheloe, consists of her brother Jackson Kincheloe (harmonica), Sasha Brown (guitar), Josh Meyers (bass), Dan Boyden (drums), Phil Rodriguez (trumpet) and Brian Graham (baritone sax)—feels most at home.
“It’s what we do every day,” Kincheloe says. “So, for me, it’s important to prioritize that and make sure A) you’re doing a good job, and B) you’re having a good time.” And if there’s one thing they sure as hell know how to do, it’s have fun playing music together. It shines through in their music in a big way.
All at once listeners are met with a wall of tight sound highlighted by punchy horns, bluesy guitar rhythms and a wild range of transformative harmonica solos—and, of course, the explosive vocals of Kincheloe. She calls the group’s sound “hard soul,” which is the product of the music she fell in love with (along with the joy music can create out of nothing) as a teenager growing up in the Catskill Mountains in New York and in a rock ‘n’ roll family.
“My dad’s a drummer and my mom used to sing in a band. And so they were playing old school rock ‘n’ roll, and even a little country sometimes, and then some old soul stuff as well, and I think I fell in love with the idea of having a big powerful band behind me,” Kincheloe says.
And that’s exactly what she got: a powerhouse platform on which to stand.
In 2008, Kincheloe and her brother arrived in New York City with a bunch of songs but nobody to perform them with, when a friend with music school ties and Ryan Snow (their former longtime trombonist) hooked them up with a bunch of the right musical folks.
“They just went through their Rolodex, so to speak, and found some players they thought would be good for the style of music, kind of slapped them all in a room together and we just jammed, and it worked,” Kincheloe says. “And from that rehearsal on it was the same nine (or so) people for like four years. We got lucky.”
In the years since, band members have come and gone, but the brother and sister nucleus has remained. Today, the now septet has found their groove and identity—a distant departure from the early-on days when Kincheloe would ask the band to wear suits and she herself would throw on fancy dresses, high heels, and do her hair up. “That didn’t last very long,” Kincheloe says, laughing.
“We’re growing into it,” she explains. “I think we’re finding out who we are and also behaving in a manner that fits the music as well—sort of lighthearted and fun and energetic.”
But the sky is always the limit. Between dynamic live performances and Kincheloe’s ongoing efforts to hone in on her abilities as a songwriter—the two “hopeful” lynchpins that draw people to the music—she notes that they’re constantly working on their stage show and mixing it up so that they’re bringing a new show each night, and that spontaneity plays a big part in what they like to do. If the band is having fun, then chances are the crowd will, too.
“I try to lead by example and just always be nuts,” Kincheloe says with a chuckle.
As for the band’s name, oddly enough, it has strong connections to northern Arizona.
Long before the band formed, a teenage Arleigh, her brother Jackson and a family friend were moving their sister out to L.A. from the East Coast. They had a friend who lived in Sedona and decided to visit. Needing a break from the confines of their station wagon, they checked into the Desert Quail Inn.
“We’re sitting there, we’re finally taking some time off, finally stretching our legs, drinking some beers and having a good time, and I started calling my sister Queen of the Desert Inn, calling her Mama Quail,” Kincheloe recalls, noting that afterwards she was jealous of the nickname. “She said that I was too small to be a mama, but I could be a sister something. So, Sister Sparrow.”
The second part, Dirty Birds, came about later when her brother, following a night of partying, was in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City and noticed pigeons everywhere. He tried to notify the attendant on duty, telling them they had a bird infestation, but as the story goes, all he could say was, “dirty birds.” The name stuck.
Nine years later Kincheloe is still Sister Sparrow, though she sings like a queen, and her brother, the original Dirty Bird, has lifted his harmonica-playing skills to a level that has him sounding like an organ one second and a screeching guitar the next.
Now, they return to northern Arizona—following a quick visit earlier this summer to the Tilted Earth Wine Festival in the Verde Valley—this time making the stop in Flagstaff, where they will no doubt queue up one of the best Tuesday nights of live, body-rockin’ music anyone could ask for.
Kincheloe says it’s what sets them apart.
“It’s our live show … the way we go about it and the passion we put into it no matter how many people are there, or not there (laughs), that it’s this sort of level of energy that we bring to the table when you see us live,” Kincheloe says. “Just bringing it as hard as we can.”
Don’t miss Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds with special guest Black Lemon on Tue, Sept. 27 at the Green Room, 15 N. Agassiz. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the music blasts off at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $17 the day of the show, and can be purchased at the Green Room or online at www.greenroomflagstaff.com. Ages 21 and over. 226-8669. To learn more about the band, check out www.sistersparrow.com.