Sister Sparrow (Arleigh Kincheloe) and the Dirty Birds were well into their set Saturday at Riverfront Nights when the bright yellow, almost harvest-sized full moon caught her eye. “I want everybody to turn around and look at that moon!” she exhorted the audience. It was an ideal night to be down by the river. The soft breeze coming off the water cut the oppressive humidity that had bedeviled everyone all week, and a crowd, ready to dance, had gathered in front of the stage. After playing a non-stop set of hard-hitting, horn-driven, Brooklyn-style R&B for close to an hour, Sister Sparrow stopped for a moment to let everyone catch their breath and soak in the scene.
“People want to have a party,” said Jeff Styles. He and the other organizers did all they could to make it happen. Someone backstage inflated a bunch of beach balls and threw them into the crowd, and a knot of children spent the rest of the evening chasing them across the grass in front of the stage, while their parents lazed and listened to the band.
The natural amphitheater is a perfect setting for a show. But, as Styles noted, “It’s not a listening room.” For anyone looking for a listening experience it may have been disappointing. Sister Sparrow and her eight-piece band (including her two brothers, Jackson, who played often blistering Charlie Musselwhite-style harmonica, and drummer Bram) played a spirited set. But as someone noted at the end of the show, they are a young band. It showed.
They were strongest when playing someone else’s songs. The highlight of the evening for me was their take on the Stones’ classic, “Miss You.” It showcased all their strengths as a band. The horn section punctuated the verses with punchy, in-synch choruses. The bass player, Aidan Carroll, played fat, funky lines, and Bram Kincheloe’s drumming fairly closely approximated Charlie Watts’ graceful swing. The song could have been written for them.
If they take the time to analyze why the song worked so well for them, they have the potential to be a great band. At the moment they are eight very good musicians who haven’t quite figured out how to play as a band. Too often they made the mistake many young bands make: They didn’t allow the music to breathe. It had a nervous, frenetic quality that undercut the soulfulness they were shooting for. Sister Sparrow has a strong and gritty delivery, but she needs less Celine Dion and more Lydia Pense, the unsung singer with the late-’60s band, Cold Blood.
Despite their lack of experience, Styles said he believes that before long, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds will be headlining much bigger shows across the country. He feels the same about Joe Robinson, a guitar player from New South Wales in Australia, who will headline the final show of the Riverfront Nights season on Saturday, Sept. 15. Robinson was voted “Best New Talent” in Guitar Player magazine’s 2010 Reader’s Poll. “The guy shreds,” said Styles.
Opening for Robinson will be local heroes Strung Like A Horse, fresh from their conquest of Nightfall in August, which ended with the band playing pied-piper for a crowd of 600 revelers who followed them to an encore show at Rhythm & Brews. Easily one of the best live bands in Chattanooga, the Horse may well give the young Australian pause when he has to follow them that night.
Between these two relatively unseasoned acts is a band that opened shows for The Clash and Talking Heads. Fishbone, a band whose music mixes ska’s rhythmic pulse with P-Funk’s manic punky funk and rock, came out of Los Angeles in the early 1980s with a revolutionary sound and a memorable stage show. They’ll be headlining the show down by the river on Saturday, Sept. 8)
“I saw them open for The Clash and for Talking Heads,” said Styles, smiling as he re-lived the shows. “I’d never seen anybody stage dive. The dude [leader Angelo Moore] just threw his trombone down and leaped off the front of the stage. I thought he was committing suicide. There’s nothing but chairs out there, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my god.’ All of a sudden all these hands come up and they’re carrying him around and he’s pulling back toward the stage, and I’m saying, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
Yellow Dubmarine, the seven-piece reggae band playing Beatles’ songs, drew the biggest crowd so far this year. More than 10,000 people crowded onto the waterfront to dance and sing-along, according to Styles. It could be that Fishbone will be the other crowd-pleaser this season.
As so often happens to pioneering performers, Fishbone’s influence has far outstripped its own success. Living Colour, No Doubt, and particularly the Red Hot Chili Peppers, rode the band’s innovative blend of rock and funk to much wider success. But Fishbone has stayed together, and judging by the videos of the band in performance on YouTube, time has done little to dissipate the energy of those early shows Styles so fondly remembers.
If at Riverfront Nights people want to have a party, as Styles suggests, with a band like Fishbone that can’t help but happen.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.