Ex-Black Crowes guitarists wing it with grace in their rocking band, the Magpie Salute.
The old English proverb “birds of a feather flock together” has been around since the mid 1500s. Clearly, the meaning behind this expression informed Rich Robinson when he was filling out the lineup card for the Magpie Salute, the group he informally assembled in 2016 with some of his former Black Crowes bandmates.
“As I tour and play and get older, and my perspective on the world changes, I realize what a gift it is to play with people that you have a connection with,” he attests. “I want to play with people that I have a connection with.” And so, in 2016, that “connection” led Robinson to reach out to several former members of both the Black Crowes and Hookah Brown (the short-lived ensemble he put together in the early part of the new millennium) with an invitation to record an album live, in front of a studio audience, in Woodstock, New York.
Among those who showed up was Robinson’s former guitar-mate in the Black Crowes, Marc Ford. “I reached out to Marc’s agent and manager, because we hadn’t spoken much in the last 10 years,” recalls Robinson. (Ford left the Black Crowes for the second time in 2006.) “I was like, ‘Does he want to come and do this?’ And his agent said, ‘He doesn’t care what it is, he wants to come.’ I thought that was a cool step, for both of us, towards healing whatever kind of weirdness there may have been. I think Marc and I had a similar arc after the Crowes, and it gave us the perspective that we wanted to get back together.”
That first performance, which took place during a Rich Robinson solo tour in support of his Flux record, eventually morphed into what is now the Magpie Salute—a band forged from the same swaggering, blues-rock template as the Black Crowes, albeit with broader musical aspirations and without the interpersonal drama that caused the aforementioned weirdness. The Crowes ceased operations in 2013, and officially called it quits in 2015 as the result of an irreconcilable rift between Rich and his older brother, the band’s lead singer, Chris Robinson. “It was very cliquey, and I was younger than everyone else,” he explains. “Chris was angry all the time and didn’t want to share credit. It was divide and conquer.”
As he reflects upon his time in the Crowes, he realized that he spent a lot of time with his bandmates, but he didn’t really know some of them. “It’s interesting to spend so much time on a bus with someone and spend every day with someone and not really have much of a personal relationship,” he says. With the Magpie Salute, Robinson intends to rectify that.
The self-titled debut album that resulted from that first Magpie Salute performance/session, which took place at Applehead Recording, a studio located on a 17-acre farm in Saugerties, New York, represents a cross section of the musicians’ shared past and collective influences, including some deep Crowes cuts along with covers of Delaney & Bonnie, Bobby Hutcherson, War, and the Faces. In addition to Ford, ex-Crowes members Sven Pipien (bass) and Eddie Harsch (keyboards) were there and eager to reconnect, too. Afterwards, there wasn’t any intention to do more, but, at the behest of Harsch, Robinson booked three nights at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City. “I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll put a show up for sale and see what happens,’” he explains. “Gramercy sold out, so we put up three more, and they sold out, and then it was like, ‘Hey, let’s do a tour, and while we’re at it, we recorded that album last year—let’s put that out.’ It was just one step after the other. We didn’t form a band, go into the studio, make a record, go out and tour on it. It was less thought through than that, but there’s an authentic element to the whole thing.” Eddie Harsch, unfortunately, never made it to those shows, because he passed away unexpectedly in November 2016, and Matt Slocum, from Robinson’s solo band, has since taken up keyboard duties.
The “authentic element” that had been evident to Robinson since the Magpie Salute’s inception has actually been a vital component of his playing ever since he burst onto the scene with the Black Crowes in 1990 on their debut album Shake Your Money Maker, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Two of its singles, “Hard to Handle” (an Otis Redding cover) and “She Talks to Angels,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts. Steeped in the blues-rock tradition of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Faces, and Humble Pie, the Black Crowes sounded rough and spontaneous compared to their often-over-produced contemporaries. They didn’t really fit neatly into the musical zeitgeist of that period. They were neither an ’80s hair band nor a Seattle grunge band. A small gap in musical movements in the early ’90s provided them with an opportunity to grasp listeners with their commanding Brit-meets-Southern-rock vibe.
The Black Crowes’ sophomore album, 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, was the band’s first release to feature Marc Ford, and it reached the top spot of the Billboard 200 albums chart in 1992. It spawned four No. 1 hit singles, including “Remedy,” “Thorn in My Pride,” “Sting Me,” and “Hotel Illness.” In Ford, Robinson seemed to have found the perfect foil for his open-tuned style of guitar playing and songwriting. It’s a pairing not unlike Ron Wood and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, or Malcom and Angus Young of AC/DC—players whose ability to influence one another and interweave parts appears seamless and completely symbiotic.
“No matter what was happening with our personal lives, Marc and I would go onstage and it would just sound that way, and that was really amazing to me,” admits Robinson. “The first day we ever started playing together was the first day we started recording Southern Harmony, and there’s always been this musical connection there.
TIDBIT: The band’s new album is its first studio production of original music. “We didn’t form a band, go into the studio, make a record, go out and tour on it. It was less thought through than that,” says Robinson.
It’s one of those things that’s kind of inexplicable—the two of us just go to this place together.” So while they may not have had a deep personal connection yet, they clearly had a musical one, and went on to record two more epic albums together, Amorica and Three Snakes and a Charm, before internal strife forced Ford’s departure.
Ford got his professional start in the blues-rock band Burning Tree in 1990. He joined and quit the Crowes twice in the ensuing years. In between his Crowes stints, he released solo albums, played with Ben Harper and Izzy Stradlin (Guns N’ Roses), and produced other artists, including PawnShop Kings and Ryan Bingham. Robinson, looking for peace and clarity amidst the chaos that became the Crowes, released a few solo albums and formed Hookah Brown, which featured current Magpie Salute lead vocalist John Hogg.
Last year, when Robinson first took the Magpie Salute out on the road, they went as a 10-piece, based simply off the template of what they had done at Applehead. “We had two keyboard players, three guitar players, Sven and Joe (Magistro, drums), and I brought in a couple of singers and had this brilliant musician, Karl Berger, who played vibes and piano.” Hogg officially became lead vocalist when Robinson decided to scale things down and go with a more traditional rock/jam band format of two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards.
The Magpie Salute recently released their sophomore effort, High Water I. While the first singles, “For the Wind” and “Send Me an Omen,” will draw striking comparisons to vintage Black Crowes, it’s songs like “You Found Me,” “High Water,” and “Walk on Water” that demonstrate the range of influences at work within the band’s musical framework. From Americana to jam to Southern rock to psychedelia, Robinson, Ford, and company are tapping into a well of musically diverse influences and churning it into a sound that embodies their organic approach to songcraft. The playing sounds off-the-cuff and of-the-moment—neither the tunes nor the guitar solos seem overly devised. Rather, the musicians communicate on a level that makes High Water I sound alive and honest, which is refreshing, especially, in an age when technology can subjugate the simple act of someone playing an instrument. Simply put, the Magpie Salute may be a new band, but it’s got an old soul. PG caught up with Robinson and Ford, just as they were about to embark upon their first official North American tour as a six-piece, to talk open tunings, creative philosophies, guitars, amps, and production techniques.