On a typical humid August evening in 2012, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds blew the tent off of Musikfest's Plaza Tropicale venue with a mix of horn-loaded funk, soul and rock 'n' roll.
The hard-rocking, high-energy hourlong show was memorable, not just for the audience who saw it, but also for the band's sly and sultry, yet powerful lead singer, Arleigh Kincheloe.
"Musikfest was one of those shows that you remember," Kincheloe says during an interview from the road. "It just stuck out because the crowd was just so amazing. They didn't know who we were. They were just music fans. It was inspiring. You see that around the country and that's why you know you can keep doing it."
Now on the cusp of hitting it big, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds returns to Musikfest Thursday, this time playing the Sands Steel Stage as the opening act for neo-folk rock band The Avett Brothers.
The seven-piece from Brooklyn, N.Y., is spending its summer in a van crisscrossing the country playing primarily at outdoor music festivals.
The band has pursued a relentless touring schedule since 2011, visiting 45 states and Canada playing 150 shows a year, including appearances at prestigious music festivals such as Bonnaroo, South-by-Southwest and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
Previous tours have not been quite as grueling as this one, Kincheloe says. During one stretch, there was 30 hours of driving to play three shows when the Dirty Birds drove from Grand Forks, N.D., to Calgary to Wyoming. That was followed by dates in Montana and Utah, where the band was enjoying a "magical day off," in Salt Lake City on the afternoon of the interview.
"The things we put our bodies through is pretty intense," Kincheloe says. "But it's worth it. I love this. I mean, I'm in Utah right now. There are no complaints on my end. I think it's pretty incredible to be able to see the country in this way. Not that many people have this experience and I feel really lucky that we did it.
"Some of it sucks a lot. I'm not gonna lie. The hours and hours in the van every day can wear you down."
The ultimate reward is playing for audiences and creating new fans, she says.
"It's cool seeing all the different audiences across the country, the different way that people react or the similarities across the board that we see in music lovers," Kincheloe says.
"There's a trend, since probably the '80s, of music that's not all real instruments or sometimes … canned stuff. It's good for people to enjoy music from a live real band. It keeps us alive and thriving or at least just alive," she laughs.
Still, the rigor of life on the road is one reason why the band has retained only a core group of four original members since its formation six years ago. Those would be Arleigh; her brother Jackson Kincheloe on harmonica, her cousin Bram Kincheloe on drums, and guitarist Sasha Brown. Phil Rodriguez on trumpet also remains from the lineup that appeared in Bethlehem two years ago and was also in the band when it recorded its 2012 album, "Pound of Dirt."
The current lineup is strong, Kincheloe says.
"The way we are working together as people, personality-wise, friendship-wise. Honestly, it all goes together in making the music better," she says.
Last year, the band went to Los Angeles to record a four-song EP, "Fight," which was produced by Randy Jackson of "American Idol" fame. Now there are plans to record another album in December with a high-profile producer, though the details are still being worked out, Kincheloe says.
Many of the songs planned for the new record have become a part of the band's live show on the current tour. So too has a unique cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock 'N' Roll"— a mashup with Rage Against The Machine's "Bulls on Parade." The arrangement was put together for a special fan request concert January in Brooklyn in which the band played all the songs in the classic album "Led Zeppelin IV."
Arleigh and Jackson Kincheloe grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. Their parents were musicians who met while part of the same band, which played mostly weekend dates near home. Dad is a drummer, mom sang and young Arleigh always knew she wanted to sing, too. Mom and dad first put her in front of their band to sing when she was 9.
She started writing songs when she was 18 and then moved to the big city to start a band — a big band featuring a guitar, bass, drum, harmonica, trumpet and saxophone. At one time, the band also featured a trombone.
"I really like that sound," Kincheloe says. "I always wanted to have a big band. It's always been my dream to do that. I draw the line at that. It would be smarter and easier to tour with less people, but it wouldn't be worth it if you're not doing what you set out to do. If you have to compromise at the expense of the music, then it's not a good compromise. That's not a compromise I'm willing to make."
Kincheloe grew up listening to and admiring Bonnie Raitt, the Beatles and The Band, which she says was an important influence on her band.
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds is also influenced by the soul music of the 1960s and '70s as the band boasts in its promotional materials of putting "a modern spin on classic soul."
"We draw from a lot of different influences," she says. "We wouldn't want to sound exactly like anybody. We want to come up with something that sounds exactly like us."
Daryl Nerl is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor
SISTER SPARROW AND THE DIRTY BIRDS
opening for The Avett Brothers
•When: 7 p.m. Thursday
•Where: Musikfest's Sands Steel Stage, SteelStacks, Bethlehem
•How much: $40 and $50
•Info: http://www.musikfest.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now