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Sweetback Sisters play for keeps

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., September 10, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The Sweetback Sisters apparently were slated to close the show with Joy Kills Sorrow opening. Somehow that got reversed due to schedules. Based on how the two bands performed, however, the Sweetback Sisters definitely deserved headlining status.

The sextet is a country-based group with bases in those country hotbeds of Brooklyn and western Massachusetts with sweet sweet vocal harmonies courtesy of female lead singers Emily Miller and Zara Bode.

The group released their debut, "Chicken Ain't Chicken," a few months back on western Massachusetts indie label Signature Sounds, and it's a keeper. The singers sound like they've been doing it for a long long time with their voices blending together very nicely. In concert, they started out slowly on a song by the late Clayton McMichen of Skillet Lickers fame. The song started slow, but they picked it right up with a good blending of voices. This was telling of what was to come from these vocalists.

But that was not the sum and total of this band. A real ace in the hole was guitarist Ross Bellenoit. He may be short on stature, but he is ultra-long on skill. Bellenoit ripped off numerous sturdy, steely, meaty guitar leads throughout their too short 50-minute set.

The Sweetback Sisters mixed original with covers such as Bob Wills' Feeling Bad, which closed the evening, to Jimmy Martin's Don't Cry to Me. They took the varied songs and made them sound their own.

For some reason, the Sweetback Sisters did not get an encore. That would not have had anything to do with the quality of their show whatsoever. These guys were keepers.

Joy Kills Sorrow offered a hit-and-miss set. Lead singer Emma Beaton grew stronger as she went along, with the band recalling Boston-area band Crooked Still to some extent.

A few songs were too disjointed to go very far, but those that were more on the up-tempo, country side fared better. It took awhile, but they finally found their groove.

The main problem may have been the presentation. Beaton did the talking along with banjo man Wes Corbett and bassist Bridget Kearney, who also plays in the Sweetbacks. In essence, there was no focal point or front person.

And while the banter was good natured, the comments - often with Corbett or Kearney "complaining" about Beaton - were inside jobs. Maybe having one voice would serve Joy Kills Sorrow better.