When the mayor of Austin creates a day in your band’s honor, one of two things have happened. You’re either in “The Twilight Zone” or you’ve made a serious impression on the Austin music community.
When Mayor Steve Adler took the stage at Barracuda at the stroke of midnight, declaring April 1, 2017, “Sweet Spirit Day,” it was the latter. In response, Sweet Spirit launched into a 90-minute tour de force justifying the mayor’s proclamation.
An all-out blow out of sing-along choruses, blazing guitar, and Mick Jagger swagger, Sweet Spirit continues to rise into the stratosphere of Austin’s music elite.
Unique Sound, Unique Band
Describing Sweet Spirit’s core sound is like trying to decode “The Matrix.” There are simply too many elements to process. My best attempt? Take the rock and roll snarl of A Giant Dog, smooth the edges with pop ear candy, and pepper the mixture with a blend of horns, bop, blues, and Shirley Bassey theatrics. The result is a constantly engaging storm of styles and influences.
At the center of the maelstrom is Sabrina Ellis. Expressive and evocative with incredible range, Ellis’ vocal styling can range from coyly quirky to a demon’s howl within the space of a song. As a front woman, she’s a ball of kinetic energy, a musical force of nature.
But it’s not all Ellis. Unlike most large bands, each member of this nine-piece ensemble is vitally important to the overall sound. Leslie Matthews’ soulful sax and Jake Knight’s keyboard work balances out longtime collaborator and fellow A Giant Dog member Andrew Cashen’s wall of guitar fuzz. On the back end, bassist Jon Fichter and drummer Danny Lion lay down the groove, while backup singer Cara Tillman plays point/counterpoint to Ellis’ emotional alto.
Sweet Spirit’s New Record
Much of Sweet Spirit’s record release show revolved around their new album, “St. Mojo,” and for good reason. Sonically, the record is a huge step forward.
“Once we were done making the record, we got nervous about what it meant to work so hard on something because we never had before,” Ellis shared. “We were used to partying our way through recording, and the outcome this time is sleeker than usual. We hope it doesn’t alienate our listeners.”
If fans enjoy beautifully crafted music, Sweet Spirit has nothing to worry about. The first single off the record, “The Power,” is a floor thumping bass and brass jam, full of bravado and self-empowerment. Through huge vocals and sassy spoken word breaks, Ellis tells a story of overcoming obstacles despite high school status and awful haircuts, before raising to a crescendo of horns, drums, and brain-blasting guitar scream.
The second single, “The Mighty,” swings between soft piano and glam rock slam, before culminating in an explosion of strings, guitars, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” choirs. The next time a building goes down in a planned demolition, this song should be playing in the background.
The balance of the album feels tighter and more varied that its predecessor. “I Wanna Have You” jumps with Prince’s funk underneath Cashen and Ellis’ two-part vocals, while “Bat Macumba” thumps along like a psychotic surf tune. On the slower side, the mournful country vibe of “The Better It Feels Today” and “Far From Home” turns down the volume, giving Ellis’ vocals room to breathe.
But while the band loves living in the studio cranking out songs, live performance is always waiting in the wings. “I think the entire band really enjoys being in studio. It may be the highlight of our year,” said Ellis. “That said, I feel a musician is meant to perform. Our energy requires that kind of catharsis. It’s a necessary exorcism. We do it several times a week, and we don’t think we could live without it.”
Unique Concert Experience
Sweet Spirit’s live performance at Barracuda took those tightly wound album tracks and unleashed them onto an audience ready to be devoured. Tunes hemmed in by studio production exploded from the venue’s speakers in a shower of searing guitars and stabbing vocals.
The group wasn’t alone. Austin legend Elizabeth McQueen joined in for a song, while Sean Matthew Tillman of opening act Har Mar Superstar joined the band for a heart-stopping rendition of Pulp’s “Common People.” Even two members from Grupo Fantasma took the stage to round out the horn section. The end effect was one of massive celebration, a vibe Ellis hopes to create during every performance.
“I want people to leave a Sweet Spirit show feeling ‘basic,’” shared Ellis. “And while people use that word as slang for generic, simple, or base, I want the audience to walk out feeling as human as they possibly can. I want them to feel primitive and in touch with their needs.”
Job done. When Barracuda’s doors opened at 1:30 a.m., the audience stumbled from the venue like rabid cannibals. With my ears ringing, heart racing, and tunes swirling in my brain on repeat, I realized Sweet Spirit’s set was a stunning affirmation of everything right about Austin music. A melting pot of sounds, songs, and styles, Sabrina Ellis’ newest project is also her most diverse, and possibly her most important.
And if you need a pleasant thought in your brain, imagine Mayor Addler rocking out to “Normally” while penning legislation in the mayoral office. Only Sweet Spirit could inspire a politician to rock the F out.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What’s your favorite Sweet Spirit tune?