It's no coincidence that former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson has named his new outfit The Magpie Salute, after another black bird. After all, alongside Robinson in this new band are fellow former Crowes Marc Ford (guitar) and Sven Pipien (bass). Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch was also in the band until his tragic death in November of last year.
So the name and personnel are in place. Throw in the fact that half of the Magpie Salute set is made up of Black Crowes tunes, and Robinson's intentions are pretty clear: he's looking for a means to continue with the Black Crowes legacy, without having to deal with the drama that comes in the form of his brother and Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson. He wants to celebrate the music that he wrote, without having to go the reunion route.
There are trade-offs, of course. As with Oasis, and even the Kinks, magic can emerge from the turbulence of inter-sibling tension. It's likely a nightmare to deal with on a personal level, but the artistic results speak for themselves. The relationship between Rich and Magpie Salute singer John Hogg, formerly of the English alt-blues band Moke, is far more amiable and healthy. As a result, this is a happier place to be and, coming full circle, those differences are reflected in the names of the two bands.
"Magpies have a different symbolic and physical connotation," Rich says. "We're not trying to ignore the fact that we were all in the Black Crowes. What we are interested in is celebrating that but also moving forward. When I was thinking about names, I've always liked the word magpie. It's such a cool word. When I started looking into it, the way you salute a magpie in some traditions is to say, 'Good morning, captain' and that's the name of a Black Crowes song. The magpie incorporates light and dark, whereas the connotation of crows is more of the dark. So there's a lot of things I like about it and a lot of things that are cool. That's what I went with and everyone seemed to love it, so here we are."
The 10-piece band came together when Rich played some solo dates early in 2016 in Woodstock, New York, and was joined on stage by Ford, Pipien and Harsch. The old bandmates got along famously, both backstage and on it. The decision was made to make it a permanent deal, so the three players were incorporated into Rich's existing solo band and the Magpie Salute was born. The first shows were in January of this year at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City.
"My band has tremendous energy, but when this guys came it was that much more fun and cooler," Rich says. "So I continued on my tour and thought about how we could do this. What would I call it? What would it be? What songs would we play? When the Crowes toured with Further after Jerry Garcia died, I liked their approach, because they still played Grateful Dead songs but they touched on their own stuff and did covers, and I just thought it was a cool thing."
Rich says that he's been enjoying reconnecting with Ford, especially because they weren't able to connect on a personal level during their time together in the Crowes. He puts that down to his brother.
"My brother was always at the helm of all things social in a sense," Rich says. "He was the center and everyone would come in, and Chris would take up all the air in the room. Early on, he and Marc Ford had met, and Chris wanted to bring Marc onboard. So he did and everyone loved Marc's playing and it was great, but Marc and I never got to talk or hang out, because there was always this filter—my brother—in the room. So for the first time, we're really getting a chance to hang out and talk, and get to know one another without that filter."
Meanwhile, having only recently started playing with Eddie Harsch again, it came as a crippling blow when he passed away 10 months ago. Rich says that the keys-man was super-excited with the way that they were playing together, a fact that actually helped them as they decided to keep going.
"He was playing so beautifully, it was crazy," Rich says. "But we had Matt [Slocum] and Matt could cover everything, so we decided to move forward, really more for Ed than us. Let's keep doing this, and part of this will be part of Ed's memory."
The Magpie Salute is in an interesting place right now. The set is made up of Black Crowes songs, plus tunes from the solo careers of Rich Robinson and Marc Ford, and a few covers. There isn't a Magpie Salute studio album of original material yet, but a self-titled album recorded live in front of an audience in the studio was released in June, almost entirely composed of Black Crowes songs and covers. The only exception is the one full studio cut, "Omission." So what we have is old songs given the spit and polish treatment, shaken up a bit, and taken out for an airing. And it's working.
"The cool thing about it is it encompasses old and new," says Rich. "Marc and I have our thing. We have our sound. Sven brings his sound. But then Joe [Magistro] is different drummer than Steve [Gorman]. Then you throw John Hogg in the mix who's not Chris, he's not trying to be Chris, he has his own brilliance, and he's showcasing that. All of those things bring a new sound to the old sound. That's what's cool about it. People are saying that it sounds fresh. They're hearing the songs they love and grew up with but there's an excitement to them."
That's all well and good. We get it. But surely, when all is said and done, family is family. Blood is thicker than water and all that. If simply to avoid awkward Thanksgiving dinners, Rich must miss performing and writing with Chris.
"I miss playing with him maybe 10 to 15 years ago," Rich says. "Playing with him on the later tours, post 2007, it just became less and less pleasant. It was always a fight, it was always getting involved with these things that I just wasn't interested in. I wanted to write music. It became so contentious, and his ego, in my opinion, blew up. Also, where he wanted to go and where I wanted to go—for me, being the Black Crowes, we were unique. Trying to be a watered down Grateful Dead band is not unique in any way, shape or form. That was a bummer. He and I have a thing. When we play together it's great. It could be great. But when it's bogged down in all this other horseshit, it's not."
Ultimately, it all comes down to comfort and contentment. Rich Robinson says that he's having more fun right now than he has since touring the Crowes' 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker. That's astounding, but it offers an insight into why this band is so important to him. They hit the studio in January to start work on a "real" studio album, and that's when we'll really find out what happens when an angsty crow turns cheery magpie.