Led by an explosive redhead with a voice to be reckoned with, a soul-filled rock band is flying high.
By Steve Houk
OK, let’s get all the bird references out of the way right at the beginning. I mean, with a band called Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, you gotta have some, right? So let’s make it fun for a sec, a cool modern folk tale of sorts.
So the Kincheloe family had a nest in the tiny hamlet of Halcottsville New York, about 150 miles north of the big city, the one with all the pigeons, aka Dirty Birds. Halcottsville is where Sister Sparrow, her brother (and future Dirty Bird) Jackson and their sister Mama Quail grew up. The Kincheloe parents would often bring music back gleefully to the nest and feed it to their family, classic vintage rock mostly. Eventually, they would push young Arleigh gently out of the nest out into the world and let her fly…er, sing…with them at their own gigs. It was that musical spirit that set their little Sparrow aloft to begin her own soaring journey.
“At like 8 or 9, I started sitting in and singing with the band,” said Sister Sparrow, aka Arleigh Kincheloe, recently from the road. “I was already doing it here and there, so my parents said let’s give it a shot. Even for an 8-year-old, I was so little, I’m still pretty small. But I was really doing it since the time I was growing up, it really helped me get comfortable on stage. And it let me just know that I really loved it.”
The bird stuff is cool but let’s cut to the chase. Arleigh Kincheloe took that musical foundation, fine tuned it a bit in the Catskills, and then moved to New York. She got her harmonica-playing bro to take flight with her (sorry, couldn’t resist), and in 2008 started Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, who since then have become one of the most talked-about soul-rock bands in the land. They’ve released three critically-acclaimed records and an EP, and most recently, an explosive live album Fowl Play (ya get that one?) that truly captures the essence of this sensational band at its most powerful. They play The Hamilton Thursday, November 10th.
But it is Sister Sparrow, and her otherworldly, soulful vocals and mesmerizing stage presence that drive the band’s dynamic. Kincheloe, who started writing songs around 18, adored tiny Halcottsville, but knew early on that she needed to fly south (darn it, sorry again) to the Big Apple and take a bite out of it to really make her mark.
“I loved where I grew up,” said the affable, red-headed dynamo, “but there were not a lot of young musicians up there who wanted to really go for it. I wanted to — A — find other musicians I could play with — and B — sort of push myself to be motivated and driven and focused. It’s fine to be proud of where you grew up, I think that’s beautiful, if that’s where you’re happy. But I think I had to push myself off the edge, you know.”
The diminutive Kincheloe has honed her voice mightily since finding her Dirty Birds, creating an onstage and studio vibe full of rock and roll soul that is both ferocious and finessed at the same time.
“It’s a hard thing for me to pin down,” Kincheloe said. “I’m just trying to be authentic to how I feel and what my voice does. People say, ‘You love Janis Joplin right?’ and I say I respect her, but I didn’t study her, I wasn’t trying to be her, it’s just that when I open my mouth, this is what comes out. So I think that’s where the soul comes from, I guess it’s just my soul, it’s just kind of what happens when I get to be free and express what’s going on inside my head, or my heart, or whatever.”
The live experience is the essence of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, and that’s why they’ve been playing 150-plus shows a year since the beginning; a tiring, exhilarating and very necessary aspect of making a successful rock and roll living. But when Kincheloe and her supremely talented band — harmonicist brother Jackson Kincheloe, guitarist Sasha Brown, bassist Josh Meyers, drummer Dan Boyden and horn men Brian Graham and Phil Rodriguez — get in the groove live, duck, because there are few bands out there right now that can compete with their towering, formidable live energy.
“The touring can get a little exhausting at times, but that’s why we’re at the place we’re at now,” Kincheloe said, “because we have done the touring for so many years straight. But it’s getting one fan at a time, that’s what we like to say. That work that we’ve put in surely has to pay off in some respect. I don’t like to think too much about what’s gonna happen in 6 weeks from now. I like to think about each day and each show, and trying to kinda maintain my sanity. And does the music still sound fresh and make us all happy when we’re on stage.”
Describing the band’s sound or putting them in a box genre-wise is not easy, they can come at you with a bevy of different sounds during their absolutely killer live shows. And that may be just the thing for them as they keep their flock flying high. Yes, I said it.
“People are always trying to compare us to people,” Kincheloe explained. “Moreso my voice than the actual sound of the band. I think there is something a little different going on, with all of us playing together. The arrangements and the style that we have sort of grown into. I always wanted it to be unique, and I was always striving for that. Because the last thing I wanna do is be the band that sounds like the other bands. It doesn’t feel like we’re reinventing the wheel, we’re playing sort of vintage stuff, even if it has it’s own little flavor to it.”
Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds with special guest Kolars perform Thursday November 10th at The Hamilton, 600 14th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.