Arleigh Kincheloe knew from a very early age that she wanted to go into the “family business.” Today she’s the singer (and co-leader with brother Jackson) of Brooklyn-based soul band Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds.
The father of the Kincheloe siblings had his own band in the Catskills area of New York State, and both Arleigh and Jackson joined their dad behind the mic when they were young kids. “When I would sing with them, I’d sing Aretha Franklin songs,” says Arleigh.
“That’s where I got the taste for being on stage.”
Seeing their dad tour and perform, Arleigh and harmonica player Jackson learned valuable lessons about music and the music business. But Arleigh admits her dad sometimes glorified his experiences, emphasizing the high life — and when Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds started touring themselves, she learned quickly there’s nothing about road culture that’s comfortable or secure. “You have to really want it,” she says. “I think it takes a certain kind of person to deal with it and really love it.”
Arleigh and Jackson Kincheloe were born to it. The band has honed its craft through extensive live performance, and today they’re a fixture on the North American festival circuit. Since forming in 2008, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds have released three studio albums, an EP, and Fowl Play, a 2016 audio document of the band’s high-energy live set.
“We were always trying to capture the vibe of our live show,” Arleigh says. “But I don’t think we ever quite got there. I like all of our records for what they are, but Fowl Play really has that energy.” She notes that some of her favorite albums — ones she would hear often at home when she was growing up — are live recordings. “Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus, Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West, and Rock of Ages by The Band are some of my favorites,” she says. The decidedly American flavor of those 1970s releases is something that Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds aim to capture in their own original music.
The Kincheloe siblings’ band traces its beginnings to 2008, at Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan. “There were nine of us in the band back then. It was a tiny room; I had a saxophone on one elbow, and a guitar stock on the other,” Arleigh recalls with a laugh. “We were really cramped up there!” The stage was so small that the band’s drummer had to set up on the floor right in front of the audience.
“But we really cut our teeth there,” she says. “We had a residency for a year or so, which really helped us. We owe a lot to that place.”
Shortly after the residency ended, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds recorded and released their self-titled debut album. The group’s muscular horn section gave the band much of its unique character, and the debut album features a clever tip of the hat to Edvard Grieg’s classical work “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” recast as the central funky horn break in “Who Are You?”
That kind of inventiveness is a key to the appeal of subsequent releases: 2012’s Pound of Dirt, a 2013 EP titled Fight, and the band’s most recent studio album, 2015’s The Weather Below. And another studio album is being prepared for release “sometime this year,” Arleigh says.
But, as she suggests, the group shines most on stage. Arleigh downplays any effort, focusing instead on the enjoyment she and her bandmates experience playing live. That appreciation is something she learned from her father’s band. “You show up, you do your best, and you have a good time with it,” she says. “If you can accomplish that, then you’ll probably win over a few people.”
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds (sistersparrow.com) headline this year’s White Squirrel Festival in downtown Brevard on Saturday, May 26. The 15th annual festival runs Memorial Day weekend, May 25-27, with a White Squirrel 5K and 10K, a photo contest featuring the area’s signature rodent, local food, the Squirrel Box Derby, and more. The festival has grown to be a major live-music presence, heavy on regional bluegrass and Americana, and this year also includes acts Alexa Rose, Leah Blevins, Alarm Clock Conspiracy, Clint Roberts, Devon Gilfillian, Becca Mancari, Fireside Collective, Songs from the Road Band, Cicada Rhythm, and Jeff Sipe & the Page Brothers. For show times and more information, see whitesquirrelfestival.com.