Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

LIVE: Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds @ The Hamilton - 2/8/13

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.

LIVE: Allen Stone w/Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds @ The 9:30 Club - 9/27/12

Allen Stone’s band warmed up the crowd with a variation on James Brown’s “Sex Machine” prior to his taking stage at the 9:30 Club Thursday night. If you didn’t know what the soul-singing wunderkind from Washington state looked like before he emerged, you might have thought they brought out the wrong guy. In his wide-brimmed hat, Western-style knit parka, and large glasses he looked less like a singer and more like a nerdy cowboy about to rob a stagecoach before heading to Old Mexico.

But then he started singing (the appropriate-for-DC “What I’ve Seen,” in which he talks about how “politicians manipulate minds”) and any discussion of his appearance went out the window. Stone’s voice is darn near perfect for the kind of uplifting party/soul music he performs. At its best, it’s a voice that’s often compared to Stevie Wonder’s - while that’s not as evident on his records, it becomes very clear live, especially on songs like “Celebrate Tonight” and “Sleep,” arguably his most popular song.

At only 25, Stone is already a master showman and worked the crowd magnificently. He constantly bounced all over the stage, repeatedly engaged with the capacity crowd and urged them to dance, and said “Washington, DC” more times in one night than a city councilman says it in a year. At one point Stone divided the room in half for a “dance-off,” noting that people had no excuse for not dancing since he himself had been dancing all night and was from “one of the most rhythmically challenged areas of the United States.” His relentless enthusiasm for performing is infectious.

TO DO LIST: Allen Stone w/Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds TONIGHT @ The 9:30 Club

Looking at Allen Stone, it’s unlikely the first thing you’d think of is “soul singer.” His J. Mascis-Meets-Todd-Snider appearance and Billy the Kid sneer do a fantastic job of disguising the spectacular voice inside. It’s a voice that’s perfectly made to sing R&B, landing somewhere between Jamiroquai at his Stevie Wonder-invoking best, a soulful Jason Mraz, and a less depressed Ray Lamontagne.

Stone developed his voice singing in the same suburban Washington state church where his father was a preacher. Though he’s still just 25 he sounds like an old soul on his two records, 2010’s Last to Speak and his 2011 self-titled album – or at least as much like an old soul can when singing about Facebook status updates as he does on “Contact High,” one of the standout tracks on Allen Stone.