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Arts and Music

The Family That Plays Together

Musical gypsies fly home to finish off 2012 with a bang

Sister Sparrow may travel in the company of the Dirty Birds, but the only thing filthy about this nonet is the horn-driven funk that’s been honed through a relentless touring schedule. With vocalist Arleigh Kincheloe fronting the band and being the foundation with the group along with harp-blowing brother Jackson and drumming cousin Bram forming the foundation of the band, SS&TDB has turned 2012 into quite a watershed 365-day stretch. Not only did the band drop its second album Pound of Dirt, but they played South by Southwest and Bonnaroo, shared a bill with Counting Crows and are wrapping up the year opening multiple dates for Gov’t Mule, including the headliner’s annual New Year’s Eve show. But for the whirlwind that this year was, Arleigh Kincheloe’s biggest accomplishment was coming out on the other side with a renewed sense of purpose upon the completion of her crew’s sophomore bow.

“It was really challenging. It was my first experience to really have time to work on things,” she recalled. “[I was] sort of staring my own ability in the face, which is terrifying; to sit with it, think about it and hear every mistake and flaw, [realizing] that you can’t be too much of a perfectionist.”

Insecurity is the last thing you’d think of when you see Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds in its natural environment—a live music venue. A show at Brooklyn Bowl found the band moving from originals like the syncopated Blues Traveler-meets-Rebirth Brass Band workout “Make It Rain” and ethereal shuffle “Another Ride” to a few covers including the Rolling Stones “MissYou” and a version of “Tell Me Something Good” that finds Kincheloe ably serving as Chaka Khan to the Dirty Birds’ Rufus. All the while, it seemed impossible that such a big voice could come out of such a lithe vocalist, but somehow the 20-something singer made it work. It’s a surety that she admits really crystallized between the endless time spent on the road and the experience of recording the band’s most recent record.

“I think between touring and the record I had a growth spurt, emotionally as well as with the singing. It wasn’t fun. It was like trying to wrestle with my own insecurities about whether or not I was good enough to be doing this,” Kincheloe admitted. “The studio really slaps you in the face because it’s like it’s demanding that you bring it right now because this is going to be here forever. It was challenging, terrifying and depressing but then you come out on the other side of it and you end up being okay with who you are and are that much more ready to face [any uncertainties]. I learned to be patient with myself and also know that the music is always going to breathe and grow and you just have to let it.”

She was raised with her brother in the tiny upstate New York burg of Halcottsville, a place Kincheloe describes as a place that “…doesn’t even have a streetlight [and is] basically one road and then a hill.” It was here growing up in a family where her father and his twin played in a band that nearly toured with the late Gram Parsons before he overdosed and her mother had done her fair share of singing as well. Encouraged to be creative, brother Jackson was a multi-instrumentalist who achieved harmonica mastery in his late teens via hours of woodshedding while his sister found inspiration to sing from Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston and Emmylou Harris. But it wasn’t until Kincheloe went through some teen angst that she started writing.

“I remember telling myself that not writing songs was going to be okay but then I went through some heartbreak when I was around 17 or 18. And that was really the first time I ever had my heart broken and I’d been tinkering on the piano, playing a lot of cover songs by people like Nanci Griffith,” the Brooklyn resident explained. “Eventually, I think it all sort of poured out of me because I was this heartbroken teenager. Sometimes you just need to get your ass kicked before you get things going.”

The siblings decided to head south to New York City and form a horn-driven combo with help from cousin Bram, whose jazz background found him playing with an impressive array of artists including Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Lee Konitz and Roy Hargrove. It was during the time the Kincheloe siblings started playing as a duo at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall that Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds coalesced into an actual entity. The end result of fronting a horn-driven band was a longtime dream of Arleigh Kincheloe. It’s a situation she welcomes being in, particularly given the success of her hero Sharon Jones, who she recently got a chance to commiserate with.

“We opened up for Sharon Jones at Oneonta Theater upstate which is kind of close to where I’m from and that was pretty insane,” she said with a smile. “Just talking to her and listening to her stories about doing it for so many years. It’s almost like glimpsing into my future. I just hope that I’m going to be able to keep doing this for 30 years like she’s been doing. This is not a sprint. This is a freaking marathon.”

Sister Sparrow will be opening for Gov’t Mule at the Beacon Theatre on Dec. 30 and 31. For more information, please call 800-745-3000 or visit