By Lee Zimmerman
As most veteran performers will tell you, being at the helm of a successful band has to do with much more than making music. A lot has to do with the ability to navigate the inroads between various personalities, egos and attitudes that oftentimes infuse a combustible chemistry that can result from the various members’ interactions.
Rich Robinson knows a thing or two about salvaging sanity when internal strife is rampant. Although The Black Crowes etched an impressive 25-plus year legacy by fusing the ragged edges of the raucous Stones/Faces-style revelry that formed their original influences with the rugged traditions of real southern rock, the tangled relationships (most notably between Rich and his brother Chris) eventually caused the band to unravel in the midst of so much anger and antagonism.
Consequently, it’s ironic in a way that Robinson’s new band, Magpie Salute, boasts such a decided Crowes’ connection. Two of his former colleagues, guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Sven Pipien, play prominent roles in the new ensemble, while the three other members — keyboard player Matt Slocum, singer John Hogg and drummer Joe Magistro — have all worked with Robinson on other projects. Even the name of the band maintains a tie; a magpie is a cousin of the crow, and according to superstition, it’s best to salute it so as to ward off evil spirits. Indeed, given the disruptive nature of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s best not to take chances.
Nevertheless, Robinson isn’t worried about any lingering episodes. “The older I get, the more I realize what a gift it is to have a musical relationship with someone that you can’t describe,” he muses. “I think the thing Marc Ford and I have is something like that. I can’t make sense of it, and I’ve never even tried. When we play together, things go to another level. He was the first person I called. I was thinking how odd it is that there are people that came in with the Crowes, that I spent every day with for one or two, or in Marc’s case, six years, and we didn’t really talk that much. We had this connection on tour musically, but we didn’t have this other element, because the Crowes were pretty toxic and not that cool to be around sometimes. So I reached out to Marc because I hadn’t talked to him much in 10 years and said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking,’ and he got back immediately and said, ‘I’ll do whatever it is. I don’t care. I’ll do it.’ He was on the same page with me.”
The other components fell into place just as quickly. The band’s original 10 member incarnation came together in 2016, first as the temporary 10-piece band that Robinson assembled for three shows planned for Applehead Recording studios in Woodstock, New York. Each concert was recorded before an intimate audience consisting of 100 people. Robinson returned to a solo tour soon after, but kept an eye open for future possibilities with the other players. Eventually, after trimming down the ensemble to the current six players, Robinson and his colleagues opted to book another series of shows, all of which were sell-outs.
“That’s how it was,” Robinson recalls. “It was kind of organic, like ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that.’ And that all tied into the new record. We all had this really strong connection. I kind of knew it, but up until that point I didn’t even know that I knew it.”
That new record, Highwater I, makes for a significant follow-up to Magpie Salute’s eponymous live debut, which was recorded live at the Woodstock sessions. It marks a striking departure from anything Robinson or his various outfits, the Crowes included, have offered up before. Strikingly vibrant and unfailingly effusive, the new record recalls the untamed veracity of the early Wings, with Hogg effectively emulating Macca’s relentless wail. As the title indicates, a Highwater II, comprised of songs that were also recorded during the initial sessions, will follow next year.
“It’s a bit of a journey,” Robinson surmises. “I feel that Highwater I sets you up for this one thing, and Highwater II will finish the journey.”
Considering the various members’ individual and collective pedigrees, it’s little surprise that The Black Crowes’ collective shadow looms large over the proceedings. Consequently, the group made a deliberate attempt to excise that imprint before foraging on. The legacy was allowed to linger, at least at first
“Last year, we really went all out to celebrate all that,” Robinson explains. “We went out with three background singers and had a 10- piece band, and it was really a celebration of the music we made together, the music we made separately, all the bands we toured with, and played with. We did songs from the Stones and Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and everyone in-between. Songs we always wanted to record. It was just kind of fun, and that’s how it was viewed. As we got more serious, we started looking towards making a new record and stepping into our own skin, so to speak. This year, the focal point will be this record. We have become this band. After going into the studio and making this record, we feel we are a band, and this is what we want to do,”
Still, with such a heavy Crowes quotient imbued in their DNA, comparisons between The Black Crowes and Magpie Salute may be inevitable.
“None of us are denying that we came from the Crowes camp,” Robinson replies when asked about any such similarities between then and now. “All of us, directly or indirectly, came from that element. Marc, Svien and I all have that affiliation. Joe was in my solo band and we took him out on tour with us as an extra percussionist. John was in a group that opened for the Crowes in 1988 and 89. The Black Crowes were a big part of our lives and either a big reason, or a small reason for us being together. It’s more important for us to go out there and play all these songs, event hough I wrote all The Black Crowes songs. We’ll touch on a couple of Crowes songs, and we’ll play a couple of covers, but we’re really excited about this record and getting out there and playing it for people.”