The best estimates of the number of words in the English language is currently about 750,000, not including slang or obsolete words. No matter how quickly that list expands, we will eventually run out of ways to combine them to come up with adequate superlatives for description, at which time we will either need to begin repeating them or, as often happens, create new ones. In terms describing of an extraordinary band like eight-piece R&B powerhouse Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, it’s possible that the most accurate expressions have already been used – John Fishman describing Fishbone as “tighter than a mosquito’s ass” and Duck Dunn describing the Blues Brothers as “powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline” come to mind. In short, there’s only so many ways you can say a band kicks ass.
The writer, then, is forced into two difficult positions: the first is to find a new way to describe a transcendent musical experience; something that goes far beyond “man, were they freaking good.” The second is to avoid the deus ex machina of music critics everywhere, even if it’s completely apt: writing that the band needs to be “seen to be believed.” I will admit up front, dear reader, I am going to fail in both regards. Sister Sparrow was freaking good, and they have to be seen to be believed. This isn’t due to my failings as a writer – it’s due to this being one of the best live bands in the history of man.
The band doesn’t so much bust out of the gate as knock it the hell down and boogie all over it for two hours. They quit rocking the stage for the same reason a school of piranhas stops devouring a cow; they’ve ripped and chewed up everything they could, and now it’s time to do the same thing somewhere else. Perhaps a woman at my table described the vibe best: “I was dancing so much in my seat that I would have fallen over and killed someone if I didn’t get up.” It didn’t take long for others to follow suit; a dance floor that was empty at the outset held hundreds of people just a few songs in.
Kicking off with an instrumental, the band revealed their staggering chops even before the diminutive Arleigh Kincheloe – aka Sister Sparrow – slunk onto the stage and started belting out “Untie My Shoelaces,” the leadoff track from the band’s self-titled debut album. And with that, the highly classy Hamilton somehow becomes a tiny Texas roadhouse that’s treated to 18 ass-moving jams that are all, like the band, “dirty” in the best possible way. By the fifth song, the bass-heavy “Freight Train,” which featured one of many incredible harmonica solos by Arleigh’s brother Jackson, the dance floor was elbow-to-elbow and anyone who had showed up for a nice dinner realized they’d gotten a lot more than they’d bargained for. Band members traded solos with abandon – on the stellar “Make It Rain” it was Ryan Snow on trombone. On the voodoo tinged “Hollow Bones” Jackson added an eerie tremolo effect to his harmonica and Brian Graham added a baritone sax solo.
Perhaps the highlight in a show full of highlights came about midway through the set with a staggeringly excellent version of “Back In Black,” complete with horns and harmonicas, which segued perfectly into “Dirt,” from 2012’s Pound of Dirt. The band threw in two other amazing covers; the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” was given a funk makeover, and the encore, the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” seems to have been made to be played by this band. A quick nod to Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” made the tune even better.
So - I’ve described the ecstasy of a Sister Sparrow live show as best I’m able, but I’m well aware I fall short. You need to see this band. Period.
Opener Jay Stolar kicked off the night on a very high note as his bluesy, soulful rock and marvelous voice got the crowd fired up and kept them singing along. Stolar has just finished putting together a new record, and will be coming back to town for a show at Jammin’ Java on March 5. Check him out.