High Water Marks: Rich Robinson Discusses The Magpie Salute & More
The Magpie Salute was born during a Woodstock jam session in 2016 and broke out in 2017 with a highly regarded four-night run at the Gramercy Theater in New York. With the way things since evolved, 2018 will be remembered as the year the band came into its own, respectful of their legacy with The Black Crowes but now, on the back of their debut studio album, High Water I, looking ahead instead of back.
The Magpie Salute combines three members from the heyday of the Crowes — guitarists Rich Robinson and Marc Ford and bassist Sven Pipien — with drummer Joe Magistro, singer John Hogg, and new-to-the-lineup keyboardist Matt Slocum. The band has slimmed down to six members from its previous 10-piece incarnation, which had featured additional instrumentalists and backup singers. As Rich told me in an early-July interview, that’s by design: it’s time for The Magpie Salute to look and sound a little less like The Black Crowes and more like itself — lean and mean as a core band.
High Water I, with 12 tracks, will be released on August 10. A second album, High Water II is due in 2019. Over the next few months, The Magpie Salute will be aggressively touring, including with old friends like Gov’t Mule and Blackberry Smoke.
JAMBASE: The Magpie Salute tour has started — how is everyone feeling so far?
RICH ROBINSON: It feels great. We’re all really excited to play this record, and that’s where our focus is. It’ll be cool develop these songs and see where they go. When you make a record like this you’re creating a seed, and over time you see what happens to it.
JAMBASE: You’ve changed the lineup of the band, adding Matt Slocum on keyboards and slimming down to fewer members in the touring lineup. Why now?
RR: Well, last year was more about a celebration of the music we had done together. It was, to me, a revue, like a Mad Dogs & Englishmen thing almost. We went out to have fun, and we brought on a lot of singers and players, and it was really cool. As we toured last year and began to focus on what we were going to do next, we realized we want to be a band — we want to go into the studio, make a record, and be a dedicated band.
So, we have six people — a core band — and really started from that standpoint to create our own sound and destiny. The space really helps. When we have 10 people on stage and three guitars and lots of people singing, it can be difficult to find that space. And Matt, you know, we’re very happy to have him be part of this. He was busy all last year with Jimmy Herring and John McLaughlin and this year became available.
JAMBASE: Going back to those early Magpie Salute shows, especially the run you guys did at Gramercy in New York, did you know then this could be a band? A long-term band with legs?
RR: I knew it was fun, but at that point we were focused on losing Ed [Harsch], and those shows ended up being in tribute. It was really cool but we didn’t know quite what it was going to be and we were finding the wherewithal to take this on the road. At that point, we were just making sure that this is positive and creative, and I think we spent the past year really maintaining that. We gave ourselves the freedom to go anywhere and play songs we always wanted to play, and work with the people we wanted to work with. The crew that we have, some of the guys have been around us for 20 years. It’s a big family feeling, but also a positive element that we never really felt before. That’s really propelled everything.
So, as we saw that it could work, the idea of opening it up to be a fulltime thing made sense. And then by the end of the year, we had songs and we were excited to take that next step. I think that enthusiasm shows on the record, and the freedom in this band we worked toward and attained.
JAMBASE: Is it likely there will be fewer Black Crowes tunes in the setlist going forward?
RR: Oh definitely, and starting now. Like I said, last year was about us celebrating the music we all made together, whether that was me and Marc and Sven and Ed, or me and Joe, or me and John and what we did in Hookah Brown. We had fun playing those songs. We will play [Crowes songs] but it’s really cool to step into this new zone. This is what we’re proud of.
JAMBASE: Is there a song from the new record you think really sounds like The Magpie Salute now? Just kind of epitomizes you guys?
RR: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. “Send Me An Omen” is kind of a broad swath of everything we can do. But there’s a lot we really covered stylistically while making sure it still sounds like the band. That’s what I like about it. Marc writes different than I do, and what John brings in is different than either of us. Having Marc and I sing on some things can add to that element, too. It’s a deep well, and there’s a lot we can go to.
JAMBASE: Is there a Black Crowes song you can think of that really sounds like you guys, the way you do it in The Magpie Salute?
RR: I write the way I write, and I always felt like if I tried to sound like something or tried not to sound like something, it would sound forced or insincere. So some things will definitely sound like the Crowes and all the music I wrote there, and having Marc in it will make it sound like that too. But then you have Joe Magistro, who doesn’t play anything like Steve [Gorman]. Joe is such a brilliant drummer. And then John, he brings his whole element to it.
Whatever Crowes songs we will still play, they’re going to move and change and fit into more of what we do here. And some songs, man, we went deep into the catalog. We played Crowes songs that in some cases had been played maybe once or twice in like 1990, or maybe not really anywhere. I like that because those songs never had a chance to develop in a Crowes repertoire, and with us, we take it somewhere. But there is any number of Crowes songs that can be interchanged into what we do now — it’s all part of the musical art.
JAMBASE: You and Marc have both said in respective interviews that you’ve gotten to know each other so much better as this band developed. You were in The Black Crowes together for all those years, and two stints, but it was in this band you formed a relationship. Why is that, you think?
RR: When the Crowes started, Chris [Robinson] had his eyes really set on Marc for a long time, and they became friends. He knew Marc before any of the rest of us did. Dynamically, that’s kind of how it unfolded throughout Crowes history, that whoever was in that stage right guitar role, there was always a divide that was kind of created a little by Chris, maybe on purpose. I don’t feel like it was open as I would have liked it to be. But we were young, we had big egos, and so there are a lot of reasons I can’t point to, but a myriad of reasons.
But if you think about how intimate being in a band with someone is, you’re on a bus with them and see them every morning, and see them going to bed, and see them at their best and their worst. To not really get to know them, but then to have this really sort of strong musical connection, I felt like, “How odd is that?” It was the main reason I reached out to him. Every time we play together that comes through: what would it be like if the other half of the relationship was kind of realized. For me I think this record is a product of that.
JAMBASE: Talk about John. He had a lot of pressure on him stepping into a role singing songs that people associate with Chris. How did you help him through that?
RR: I’ve always been such a huge fan of his. I met him in 1998, his band opened for the Crowes, and I remember thinking: this guy can sing. It’s so natural and effortless for him, and his range is so sweeping that he can do so many things. He’s also a brilliant background vocalist, and you know a lot of times lead singers can’t fall into that role. And he’s zero ego. He’s one of the sweetest guys I know.
That being said, I knew it was tough for him. It was tough and it was really meant to be fun. He grew up in London listening to those Crowes songs. [I told him] try to honor the song. You’re not Chris, and no one in this band expects you to be Chris, and anyone who does expect that is flawed. He’s not trying to be Chris.
Think of it like Chris honoring the Led Zeppelin songs that we did with Jimmy Page. He went out there and sang those melodies and those lyrics, not trying to be disrespectful in any way to Robert Plant, just honoring the songs for the time Jimmy was in our band. John is honoring these songs, playing with me and Sven and Marc and people who happened to have played on those records. So what I said was honor the song, and we knew it was going to be tough, but he was up for the challenge.
We had a steep learning curve for those shows at Gramercy. We played more than 80 songs over four nights. It was tough, but I didn’t want to take the easy road and just play the same 12 songs every night. A lot of the people who came to those shows went to all four of them, and the precedent Marc and I wanted to set was that we would change our setlist every night. We want to show that we’re not just out there as a cash grab. We wanted to celebrate — we know this is where we came from, but this is where we’re going to go now. John had it tough as a singer. As a guitar player, you learn the chords. As a drummer, you learn the drum parts. But a singer you have to learn pitch and phrasing and pages and pages of lyrics. And anyone in their right mind can do that, but then you want to tap into what’s sincere — really tap into the meaning of the songs. He’s really done that.
JAMBASE: And Rich you’ve talked about Joe and what he brings to this. Do you keep in touch with Steve, was he ever going to be part of The Magpie Salute?
RR: Originally, I’d reached out to Steve but Steve wasn’t interested. He wanted to do his thing, and that was it. I haven’t spoken to him in a while. People get busy and do their thing and we do our thing, and rarely that the twain should meet. I’m just thrilled to be part of this and have Joe be part of what we’re doing. He’s a brilliant musician. This band has a lot of them.
JAMBASE: You guys are out for a lot of this summer and into the fall, on many dates with old friends like Gov’t Mule. Can we anticipate some collaboration?
RR: Oh yeah. It’ll be cool when it happens.
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