The history of funk music in New York is littered with bands that never made it further than the Bleecker Street strip – or maybe never wanted to. Then there are plenty of good, individualistic, funky acts, from Sugamyth, to D’Tripp, the Family Stand and the Pleasure Unit, who all earned a certain following but never broke through to an audience much further beyond their NYC home base. With the demise of the major labels and corporate music radio, could a band even consider reaching a broader fan base these days? Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds are as good a candidate as any to do it. What sets them apart from the legions of imitators out there is that they’re what could be called a tight jamband. You might think that’s an oxymoron, but their private performance for media and a posse of friends last night at a Chelsea studio reinforced that perception and left the crowd screaming for more.
Their frontwoman Arleigh Kincheloe is as hyper, individualistic and down-to-earth offstage as she is on. By the night’s third number, she’d blown out her voice – she didn’t need to do that, she could have gone easy on herself, but she’s one of those rare singers who seems to feel the need to go deep inside the songs and inhabit them. Her lyrics aren’t just “celebrate good times, c’mon” – she likes to tell a story, whether about betrayal, or passion, or something sarcastic or funny. Her hurricane-force contralto is a mighty instrument, but this time out she didn’t always go full throttle, and showed off an impressive top end for someone who usually hangs out in the moody lows. This is a family band, with that kind of tightness and rapport, her brother Jackson adding an eerily noisy, wailing edge on harmonica, and brother Bram propelling the unit on drums. Sasha Brown’s guitar joined with the harmonica to raise the edgy intensity with a similarly noisy approach, adding molten-metal, keening sheets of sustain and carpetbombing, incisive accents instead of the Clapton cliches that so often ruin this kind of music. The three-piece horn section of trumpeter Phil Rodriguez, trombonist Ryan Snow and baritone saxophonist Brian Graham punched, and bobbed, and weaved, and soared mightily when the songs hit a high point.
The set mixed earlier material with tunes from the band’s just-released new ep, Fight. One standout number was The Long Way, with its wickedly catchy chorus and wry call-and-response outro. Bassist Josh Myers’ fat, boomy chords drove the intro on the gorgeously oldschool, pulsing, retro 60s number after that (Don’t Be Jealous, maybe?) – it would have fit right in seamlessly at a Sharon Jones show. After that they turbocharged a vintage 70s disco groove lit up by a fiery, bluesy exchange of horn riffage. The centerpiece of the show was the slinky soul epic Mama Knows, with its message of family love and togetherness. “Thank you for sweating with me,” Arleigh told the crowd late in the show, and she wasn’t joking. This band plays mostly larger venues these days – what a treat it was to see them in such a small, intimate space.