Brooklyn’s Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds is as ingrained into the tradition of big-band soul as any outfit you will find. From the skronky give and take between sly guitar fills and muscular bass lines to the triumphant blasts of glowing but gritty horns, it nails every genre hallmark while still managing to maintain a singular identity that sets it apart. But there is one stereotypically soul trait that The Dirty Birds represent more than any other: It is a family band in the truest sense.
Singer Arleigh “Sister Sparrow” Kincheloe and her harmonica-playing brother, Jackson, teamed up a few years ago to bolster Arleigh’s fiery pipes with a large and lively band. They assembled the eight-piece Dirty Birds with help from their cousin, Bram Kincheloe, who grew up playing music in California and enlisted the help of talented friends he’d been playing with for years. Reinforcing these familial connections is the story behind the ensemble’s avian epithet.
“My brother and I were on a road trip with our older sister,” Arleigh explains. “We were moving her from New York to L.A., and we stopped over in Sedona, Ariz. We were staying in this hotel called the Desert Quail Inn, which we thought was just amazing. There was a lot of bird talk flying around that night in the hotel room, and I decided my sister was ‘Mama Quail,’ so if she was ‘Mama Quail,’ then I had to be ‘Sister Something.’ ‘Sister Sparrow’ came out of that. As soon as she said it, it sort of clicked. My brother had been tossing around ‘The Dirty Birds’ thing for a while. He had a run-in with some pigeons at the Port Authority bus station.”
Arleigh owes her emergence as a singer to her musically inclined family. She didn’t begin writing her own songs until she was 18, but she was singing on stage by the time she was 9. Her parents have been in and out of bands all their lives, her dad playing the drums and her mom singing in many of her husband’s outfits. They recognized their daughter’s talent and brought her up often to sing with them, an experience that removed any stage fright from Arleigh’s mind before she ever had a chance to feel it.
“It’s kind of crazy to be a 9-year-old on stage,” the 25-year-old recalls. “I just feel very grateful that I got that experience at such an early age, and I think it really propelled me to do it for a living. I feel very comfortable — I feel very at home on the stage. I sort of feel like I grew up there. Without that I feel like it probably would have taken me a few more years to sort of get my bearings and want to front a band of my own.”
The experience paid off and then some. Alrleigh is as confident and commanding as any band leader could hope to be. Her mercurial pipes fuse the funky-smooth tone bending of the best soul singers with a Janis Joplin-esque rasp, and she backs up her voice with unstoppable personality. On “Lasso,” a standout from this year’s Pound of Dirt LP, she shrieks with incredible longing about the things she wants before sneakily turning it into a joke and purring out, “I want to take it to the bridge” as a sexy sax solo takes over. In moments like these, she feminizes the grandiose machismo of greats such as James Brown, nimbly adapting the style to suit her purpose.
“When I was 18, I didn’t sound like this at all,” she says. “I feel like it just came up from the earth, and it just was. People ask me about my voice and like, ‘What are you doing? How do you do it?’ I don’t know. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if it’s going to stick around. It feels like it came out of thin air for me because I’ve always been a singer, but I’d be so curious to hear tapes of me when I was 9. I definitely didn’t growl back then.”
Arleigh’s ace backers match her ferocity with impressive ingenuity, twisting familiar sounds to progressive ends. The harmonica-fueled “Bulldozer” begins with a blazing bit of distorted blues harp but soon dips into reverb, growling out a groove with concussive emphasis. The effects-laden guitar on “This Crazy Torpedo” percolates with the complexity of a Minimoog solo.
“We are one, but we’re also nine bad asses,” Arleigh says. “Everybody gets to shine. I also don’t think we’re necessarily actively trying to be modern or be throwback. We’re just trying to do what we think sounds right.”
— Jordan Lawrence is editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.