Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds are a seven-piece band out of Brooklyn, N.Y. that fit the bill for the seemingly never-ending demand of a certain brand of soul/blues/funk by a large subsection of Portland music fans. They’re not as rock-leaning as Grace Potter, as guitar-solo-friendly as the Tedeschi Trucks Band, as retro-authentic as Sharon Jones, but there are elements of each as well as more straight forward pop acts within the Dirty Birds sound. They also, like many of these artists, are best experienced live, where they are able to stretch out groove-centric sections cut short on recordings and individual members are allowed to have their moments to solo and shine.
Therefore, the recent release of Fowl Play, a two-disc live set, makes sense, giving listeners the ability to attend a Sister Sparrow show from the comfort of their own home/car/cubicle. Recorded on New Year’s Eve to a sold out crowd in Fairfield, Conn., the album has energy in spades. You can hear a band that loves playing and a crowd that is pumped to be there, hooting and hollering throughout the recording.The band are at their best when they step outside of their comfort zone (“Borderline”) or just shoot for the stars (“Sugar”), suggesting a musical identity far more interesting than simply doing well what many, many other acts have done before. With songwriting duties handled primarily by lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe, the songs function as a foundation on which she can sing her heart out. Reminiscent of Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, Kincheloe has a tendency to resort to a rhythmic delivery in verses that mixed with her raspy drawl makes her sound unintelligible. It’s clear that she can sing, and it’s clear that she’s having a blast doing it, but it would just be nice to understand what she’s saying most of the time.
The band is filled out by bassist Josh Myers, the tastefully stylish guitar playing of Sasha Brown, Phil Rodriguez blasting away on the trumpet and band MVP Jackson Kincheloe on harmonica. The brother Kincheloe utilizes effects to best fit the arrangements be it distortion on leads or a harmonic pedal to get more of an organ-sounding tone. For a guy who just plays harmonica, he makes his involvement crucial to the band’s sonic makeup.
Finally, there’s Dan Boyden (of Model Airplane) on drums, whose solid playing never draws attention to itself and never drops the ball, and Brian D. Graham (of The Fogcutters) on saxophones, who masterfully handles a majority of the horn solos. These are guys from Portland who are playing 100+ shows a year across the country, doing their job and doing it well. I think they also, rightfully, add an element of personal connection to Sister Sparrow as a whole, a feeling that the group is “ours,” and their involvement in last year’s Big Band Syndrome suggests that the feeling is mutual – that Portland is a second home for Arleigh and company (and likely one of many).
That’s what makes their recent show at Port City Music Hall so disappointing. The band did their best to provide a great night, filling the stage with energy and special performances by Anna Lombard and Dave Gutter, whose assistance in a killer rendition of The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running” finally got the restless crowd invested in the show.
This had less to do with the musicians or the attitude of the attendees but with the live mix which was unbelievably muddy and allowed for very little to cut through. I struggled to hear what the guitar was actually playing through the entire show and compared to Fowl Play, where Brown is present and adding a bit of flavor to every song, his presence was essentially non-existent at Port City. Other awkward moments included: microphones popping, feedback appearing out of nowhere and a weird decision to have Boyden’s snare be the loudest element. The band seemed unaware of this, or never let it show, as they played confidently with smiles on their face the whole time.
At this point in Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds career, when they are able to draw as significant a crowd as they do, it makes me wonder why they are not travelling with a sound engineer, somebody who can give them the mix they deserve and provide quality control from city to city. If I were an average music listener, I may not have been able to pinpoint the source of the less than stellar sound and may have wrongfully blamed the band for not being as good as they were last time, not being as tight as their live record, etc. etc. I don’t know how realistic it is financially for the band currently, but I desperately hope that this is a conversation that is being had as it is of the utmost importance for a group this polished to be able to bring the best show they are capable of as consistently as possible.
With Fowl Play in existence, they’ve made it that much more necessary.
(Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds — Fowl Play available on iTunes/Amazon/Spotify/Bandcamp)
Latest from Kyle Gervais
- Edwards and friends: Folk veteran receives assist with Tomorrow's Child
- Revelations from Dominic and The Lucid: FERRET explores countless avenues
- Into an uncertain future with Old Etc.: Biddeford-based band releases tantalizing album
- Deep end of the pool: Purse dives into layers of sound in adventurous outing
- An Evening With challenges, confounds with hook-heavy outing