Singer/guitarist Rich Robinson knows what people might initially think about his new band, The Magpie Salute. That they are some kind of Black Crowes tribute band that just happens to play a lot of their songs with a lineup that includes himself (a Crowes co-founder with brother Chris), and former BC members Marc Ford (guitar) and Sven Pipien (bass).
But they would be wrong.
“I wanted to find a way to honor our past, but also honor what we’re doing now and the relationships we have, and take it forward. This band is a loosely based cousin of the Black Crowes,” Robinson says. “And I came up with the name because the way that you salute a magpie in tradition is to say ‘Good morning, captain,’ which was a Crowes song. It was all interestingly connected.”
Though the Black Crowes have had their share of breakups, reunions and hiatuses over the years, the 2014 rift and subsequent public back-and-forth between the Brothers Robinson over money, artistic and naming issues seems on the surface to be a bit more permanent. Chris immediately continued work with the more psychedelic Chris Robinson Brotherhood (read into that name what you will), while Rich continued his solo career, which included a new record, Flux, and touring.
This included a planned gig last year with his band, which already included Pipien, at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, New York, as part of the ongoing Woodstock Sessions program. On a whim, he reached out to Ford, as well as fellow ex-Crowe Eddie Harsch (keyboards), to join him. Over three days of rehearsal, the supersized unit ran through a set of Crowes music, classic-rock covers, solo material and more.
“The older I get and the more that I play, I realize the gift that it is to play with people that I have a deep musical connection with. And it was so cool to have that element when I built this band,” Robinson says. “In the Crowes, whatever Marc played on a song was cool, and I loved what he and Eddie would bring to it. And there was something extra about that weekend.”
The show was received rapturously by the audience. And as Robinson continued his solo band tour, it laid the groundwork for The Magpie Salute; sadly, though, Harsch died unexpectedly in November at the age of 59. When a show was announced in New York in January of this year, fan demand led to four concerts, and all sold out as the band tore through more than 80 different songs during the run. Quickly booked London shows did the same.
Now, The Magpie Salute will release its self-titled debut this Friday, with a European and American tour to follow. The album includes the last recorded work of Harsch, whose death just before the New York shows came as a blow to Robinson and the fledgling group, he admits. Robinson says he and the Toronto-living keyboardist had many eager and energetic conversations about set lists for their new band's gigs.
“I had never seen Ed more clear and happy in my life, and then we got a call from his 90-year-old mother he was in the hospital and in a coma," Robinson recalls. "A week later he passed."
Reflecting the speed at which things have happened, The Magpie Salute’s ten tracks include only one original song, leadoff single “Omission.” The rest are covers by the Crowes (“Wiser Time”), Delaney and Bonnie (“Comin’ Home”), the Faces (“Glad and Sorry”), Pink Floyd (“Fearless”), and the Band (“Ain’t No More Cane”). There’s also a super deep cut – the socially conscious/political “War Drums,” from the first Eric Burdon-less release by War from 1971.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of War, with and without Eric Burdon," Robinson says. "We used to do ‘Gun’ with my solo band. And Ed used to play the melody from ‘Roll On Kirk’ at soundcheck."
“But to me, they are just an astonishing band. So heavy and they have so much discipline. They don’t overplay, and the rhythm section is fucking phenomenal. And that song is more apropos today even than it was then, from a spiritual level of where humanity and where America is right now. A huge swath of the population is following a tweet and a small population is strong and waking up and dealing with what the hell is going on.”
It’s all a first shot across the bow, and Robinson says more original music will follow. The rest of the lineup is composed of Joe Magistro (drums), Nico Bereciartura (guitar), John Hogg (lead singer), Matt Slocum (keyboardist) and backup singers Charity White (who sang with the Crowes), Adrien Reju and Katrine Ottosen.
Rich Robinson is fully aware that there is a hunger for audiences to hear Black Crowes music live even though that band is finished, something he also witnessed firsthand in 1997 in another context. That’s when the Crowes were tapped to headline the Further Festival. The tour also featured former members of the Grateful Dead playing that band’s music for an audience eager to hear it again after the death of Jerry Garcia.
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“Phil Lesh and Bob Weir and Mickey Hart would play things and I started thinking about how cool that was, that they kept [the music] going," says Rich. "It was something really positive.”
– Still – in the vein of Delaney and Bonnie or Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tours of the ’70s – there’s a lot of people onstage. And that costs money. Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi have joked in interviews about the fiscal irresponsibility of keeping their 11-plus-member group on the road. But likewise for Rich Robinson, money will never take precedence over art with The Magpie Salute.
“Sure, it’s cheaper to go out as a three-piece or fucking travel with a laptop,” he laughs. “But it won’t bear the same results. And I’m not willing to settle for less.”
The Magpie Salute's debut LP will be released this Friday. Check themagpiesalute.com for upcoming tour dates, including an October 20 show at Houston's House of Blues.