Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds
at Long's Park Amphitheater,
Lancaster, PA (3 June 2012)

Suddenly, rain.

A picture-perfect day to kick off the summer concert series at Long's Park very nearly turned sour when a fast-moving mass of dark clouds scudded across sunny skies, bringing with them a brief but heavy downpour and gusting winds, followed by a steady rain and a National Weather Service alert for severe thunderstorms in the area.

The unexpected weather system had a discouraging effect on the crowd at Long's Park. Normally numbered in the thousands for the free concerts, the crowd this Sunday could be counted in the dozens, despite the strong appeal of Brooklyn-based blues and soul rockers, Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds.

"We're meeting friends," Eddie Bailes of Middletown said, casting a wary eye at the sky from beneath his umbrella, about 30 minutes before the show's scheduled start. He, wife Colette and son Jeremy weren't sure they'd be staying if friends weren't already on their way. "So far, it's great," Bailes, a Long's Park first-timer, said with a laugh.

"We really wanted to see this band," Spike Spilker of Camp Hill, camped under a nearby umbrella with his family, said.

A previous attempt to catch them at a sound check at the Millennium Music Conference in Harrisburg fizzled after the band got stuck in traffic, Spilker said. "I definitely want to see these guys live," he said. "There's another show coming up in Perry County later this summer ... but, of course, it's not free."

Spilker couldn't decide how bad the rain would have to get to send him scurrying for cover. After all, he said, he once sat through a drenching rain to see Riders in the Sky -- it wasn't until heavy winds drove the rain onto the stage and the band was forced to quit that Spilker finally gave up.

Across the Long's Park lawn, diehard fans huddled under umbrellas, blankets and tarps, and in some cases the trees -- they heard the thunderstorm warning, right? -- or clustered under the projecting arch of the amphitheater roof.

"Obviously, I like music," Tom Stahl of Lancaster, a Long's Park regular, said to explain his presence, shivering in the chilly rain. "Thunder and lightning might make me reconsider," he said. "But a little wet? That makes me grow."

"I'm ready to dance, frankly," Alexandra Angstadt, also of Lancaster, said a few minutes later. "It looks like it might blow over."

Their patience paid off in spades. Just moments before the band started, the clouds on the horizon parted and sunlight flooded the stage. A patch of sun quickly expanded across the lawn, and maybe that persistent drizzle didn't matter so much any more. Within minutes, the crowd blossomed from just over 100 people to 400 or more. And if no one was dry when the music began -- well, no one seemed to mind too much.

Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds took the stage shortly after 7:30 and put on a blistering show that quickly burned off the remaining rain.

The nine-piece band is fronted by its sole female member, Arleigh Kincheloe, who belted out songs such as "Boom Boom," "Lasso" and the ironically titled "Make It Rain" with a power that seemed at odds with her diminutive frame. Striding across the stage in tight jeans, tall boots and a sheer, flowing top, Kincheloe has kittenish moves by a voice that's all cat. She easily rose above the band's horn and harmonica foundation with a hint of Janis Joplin rasp that hinted of smoky bars and whiskey shots, although she could go low and sultry as the song required.

"It's a beautiful night," Kincheloe told the crowd. "I think we made it through the rain."

She was matched by the skill of the talented band behind her, which includes brothers Jackson Kincheloe on harmonica and Bram Kincheloe on drums. Others in the lineup are Sasha Brown on guitar, Aidan Carroll on bass, J.J. Byars on alto sax, Johnny Butler on baritone sax, Phil Rodriguez on trumpet and Ryan Snow on trombone.

The current tour puts Sister Sparrow and her band in Portland, Maine, by Wednesday and Manchester, Tennessee, by next weekend.

Fallon May, a 12-year-old Ephrata native, was glad to have stayed through Lancaster's storm. "I knocked on the dressing room door to wish them good luck," May, a fan of the band, said. "They gave me a pair of drumsticks."

Spilker, too, was happy he stayed.

"We're vindicated," he said.

by Tom Knapp
16 June 2012