There seems to be a real hunger in concert venues and halls for bluesy rock, soul, funk, and the like. Watching the crowd at the Irving Plaza for Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, you get the impression that live instrumentation is still very catchy. And Sister Sparrow delivers.
The Irving Plaza is a mid-size venue that encourages a fairly populist spectrum of ticket buyers. I’ve seen Q-Tip run a DJ set there, and mid-level rock bands frequent the hall near Union Square. So I’d say the Dirty Birds’ brand of funk fit right in.
As a preface, I’ll say this show was a case where the opening band helped contrast the headliner almost perfectly. Turkuaz was a white funk band where every member was talented, but every song rang false. Melodies and rhythms practically strangled to get some funk juice out of them, with very little success. Honestly, Sister Sparrow was a bit of a relief after they left the stage.
Despite being produced by human neon-sign Randy Jackson, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds are actually pretty natural on stage. We could go down a rabbit hole discussing how much authenticity can be coached, but I’d say nothing in the set stank of artifice or pretension. All eight members are believable, and watching them is a fair amount of fun. The wide array of mustaches also helps.
One of the better parts of the set was the band’s insistent pace. “The Long Way” is a good example. The song, a track off of their new EP, uses horns to great effect, and highlights Kincheloe’s deep but bouncy voice. And this followed through most of the show. Another new song, “Crawdaddies,” lays on the Southern a little thick for my taste, but plays really well live. The Dirty Birds don’t rush, but also keep the music coming as quickly as the audience will allow.
The only real complaint about Kincheloe’s lead vocals is that they don’t feel fully formed. “Lasso,” a funky piece on resentment, has many of the flavors of other neo-funk singers (Macy Gray, Joss Stone, et. al), but none of the real anger. Unlike her peers, Sister Sparrow doesn’t seem as emotionally invested. It’s really the difference between great funk and good funk. That and the unremarkable drumming give you a sense of unfulfilled potential.
Thankfully, the band knows how to finish a set; “Too Much,” from one of their earlier albums, stills sounds current and kicks further into their bluesy roots. I also have to commend Arleigh Kincheloe on wrapping up her encore with a serious cover of Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls. A song that often slides right into a parody sounded more like the party hit it really is with her voice. It also sums up the tone of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. Fun. Without much clutter or over-production.