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The Commons
Photo 1

Courtesy photo

Emily Miller and Zara Bode — The Sweetback Sisters — will be playing songs from their new album during an Aug. 21 concert in Brattleboro.

The Arts

Sweetback Sisters return to Brattleboro with new music — and a new outlook

After taking time off to start their families, Emily Miller and Zara Bode round up the band for a rare summer show

Tickets for the Aug. 21 concert at the Stone Church can be bought in advance from Brown Paper Tickets at Prices are $15 general seating and $17 for the balcony.

Originally published in The Commons issue #420 (Wednesday, August 9, 2017). This story appeared on page B1.

BRATTLEBORO—It’s been quite a while since The Sweetback Sisters have played a non-Christmas show in Brattleboro. But on Monday, Aug. 21, at 7 p.m., at the Stone Church at 210 Main St., they’re coming back to town with a new show and a raft of new songs from their latest album.

Emily Miller and Zara Bode hail from Brooklyn, N.Y. — not exactly a hotbed of country music. But in the 10 years they’ve been performing as The Sweetback Sisters, they’ve taken traditional country music and nudged it into a different sonic universe.

With a live show that The Boston Globe described as “the perfect balance of sass, sincerity, and swing,” the Sisters have performed everywhere from A Prairie Home Companion to Mountain Stage and graced festivals from coast to coast in addition to selling out theaters with their annual Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular.

“I wouldn’t call us a throwback band,” Miller said in a news release. “What we do is look back to the golden era of country music and imagine that the genre took a different evolutionary fork, that the honky-tonk element took over rather than the pop-rock sound you hear everywhere today. I feel like we’re actually a very modern band, just on an alternate timeline.”

New territory

Their new recording, King of Killing Time, offers the charismatic, airtight harmonies of Miller and Bode that fans expect, but the duo also pushes their sound into more adventurous and playful territory. The record’s 10 tracks are a mix of infectious originals and unexpected interpretations of everything from George Jones to Gram Parsons.

Hints of jazz and ragtime flesh out the Sisters’ unique brand of classic country, as Miller, Bode, and their remarkably versatile band (guitarist Ryan Hommel, fiddler Ben Sanders, bassist Jason Sypher, and drummer Stefan Amidon) conjure up a singular blend of heart, humor, and virtuosic musicianship.

The new CD represents a return to action for Miller and Bode. Both took a couple of years off to get married and have children, a development which colors their perspective throughout the new album.

The temporary slowdown also gave their band an atypically long time to hone the new material before they headed north to Vermont to record tracks at Guilford Sound studio. Capturing the essence and energy of the band’s live show was essential to their vision for the album, and Miller said the atmosphere in Guilford made for an ideal recording environment.

“We’d been performing these songs for some time and knew the material in and out,” Miller said. “That meant we could relax about the technical stuff and really get lost in the performances. Once we were mixing, we found ourselves going after the vibe of those initial playbacks and couldn’t rest until we reclaimed that feeling.”

Perfect vocal blend

The record opens with “Gotta Get A-Goin’,” a lighthearted track that moves at a breakneck pace and dates back to the Sisters’ very first live performance. Originally recorded in the 1950s by country duo The Davis Sisters (another pair of harmonizers who, like Miller and Bode, were actually unrelated by blood), the song showcases the frontwomen’s impossibly perfect vocal blend and their band’s dazzling instrumental prowess.

On “I’m Gonna Cry” (penned by Miller’s husband Jesse Milnes), the Sisters channel the mischievous theatrics of country’s early days, while Cindy Walker’s “It’s All Your Fault” gets a swinging Dixieland clarinet treatment, and “That’s All It Took” takes on new life over shimmering pedal steel and mournful fiddle as Bode and Amidon channel Gram and Emmylou.

For her pair of songwriting contributions, Miller dug deep and tapped into the excitement and trepidation of taking the plunge into marriage, with “One Day At A Time” offering an antidote for anxiety about the f-word (“forever”) and “I Got Lucky With You” winking slyly over some risqué double entendre.

Songs like “Trouble” — a runaway freight train of a tune propelled by Bode’s stellar vocals and Sanders’ remarkably dexterous fiddle playing — and the bluesy “Don’t Worry” — a Marty Robbins classic — stand out with an extra edge of grit and twang due in no small part to the brilliant dueling fretwork of former guitarist Ross Bellenoit and current guitarist Hommel.

“We’ve always been such a family operation that it made sense to be joined by an old friend in the studio,” Bode said. “Ross originated some of these parts, but Ryan has taken them to a whole new level. I’ll admit, it was a gamble to throw them into the ring together, but they’re both such masters that it came together seamlessly, giving us just the sound we were looking for.”

The album ends with a heartrending, slow-burning take on “If The Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” which finds our leading ladies trading off vocals and stacking harmonies until, by the end, the whole band has joined in and raised their voices together. It’s a powerful moment, one in which these gifted and inspired artists feel less like a band and more like a family.

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