Mr. Crowe's Garden Grows
Rich Robinson harvests a bumper crop of rock'n'roll with The Magpie Salute
Since the first long hiatus of the Black Crowes in 2001, guitarist and co-founder Rich Robinson has led a number of musically diverse bands and released an impressive canon of solo material. Beginning with Hooka Brown, the soft-spoken singer-songwriter has orchestrated several revolving door combos.
In 2016, just after a stint as touring guitarist with Bad Company, Robinson gathered what organically morphed into the current line-up of The Magpie Salute, a large ensemble that includes Marc Ford and Sven Pipien of The Black Crowes with a slate of like-minded, internationally-based musicians including Katrine Ottosen, Joe Magistro, Charity White, Nico Bereciartua, John Hogg, Adrien Reju and Matt Slocum.
On the morning of the first show of their national headlining tour, Robinson called from Indianapolis to talk about the band and their new self-titled album.
How did The Magpie Salute happen? Were you planning to form a new band last year or did it just gel organically?
At the studio where I record up in Woodstock, [Levon Helm's Barn] they do a series of shows where they invite like 100 people in to watch as a band plays live. You basically make a record in front of a live audience. The Crowes did it with our last album Before The Frost (2009). I did one there in 2014 and then last year, I was supposed to do it again, but I wanted to do something different.
You've always been good with changing up styles and personnel with great results.
Well the older I get, the more I realize I'm gifted to play with people I've had an incredibly strong musical relationship with. I'm so fortunate that I've had that with so many people at this point. Obviously my brother and I had that, but also Marc Ford and I had it, Eddie Harsch and I had it, Sven and I had it and Joe Magistro and Eddie Hogg have it now. So I reached out to Marc. We hadn't spoken in a long time but we'd started talking through other people. I sent his guitars back to him [after the flood that damaged the Crowes' storage studio in New Jersey several years ago.] And I said to myself, I'm just gonna reach out to him for this. He said "I'm there" without hesitation. Then I called Ed [the late Eddie Harsch, keyboardist for the Black Crowes from 1991-2006], we talked a couple of times a year because I just loved him and he was a brilliant musician and a great person. He was like, "I'm there," too. To me, it was just going to be a one-off thing. My band did 76 songs over three shows and I brought those guys in for 25 or 30 songs, not to completely overload them with shitloads of songs to learn. I tried to pick the songs that everyone would bring something to, new and old. We did it and we could feel that it was really special. When we were leaving, Ed came up to me and said, "We need to keep doing this, man."
But you had a tour of your own to finish after that, right?
Yeah and I spent the rest of my tour trying to piece this together. What would I call it? What would the sets look like? How many Crowes songs would we do? How many covers? How would we build this thing?
How do you plan something that looks back on your own stuff and forward at the same time?
Well, after Jerry [Garcia] died we played the Furthur Festival and that was the guys from the Dead playing Grateful Dead songs and their own songs. I thought that was a cool template to go with.
Then you booked the shows.
Yeah, I said, "Let's put a couple of shows up for sale and see what happens." We booked a show at the Gramercy in New York and it sold out in 20 minutes. Then the next one sold out. They wanted us to do seven, but I said, "Let's just try four and see how it goes."
So there was a strong demand from the beginning.
Yeah, Black Crowes fans are very loyal. They love that band and the music and I think they like the context of me and Marc Ford playing together. There's something he and I have that is inexplicable when we play together. There was an excitement there and it went really well. So we thought we'd do some more and then at the same time, we thought, "Well shit, we have a record recorded, the one from the sessions last year at Woodstock." We overdubbed [vocalist John Hogg's] voice on some stuff. And I had this song John and I wrote back when we were in Hooka Brown. I said, "This can be our first original." I had the basic tracks. I didn't sing on it, I did the guitar, bass and drums and Sven overdubbed bass, Marc Ford played on it Matt Slocum played on it and it turned out to be the first official Magpie Salute song. So that's how it happened.
In keeping with the band name, are you "saluting" much of the Crowes' material in concert?
About half the set is Black Crowes songs and then the other half is some of my solo songs, Marc's solo songs and really cool covers. The idea is to go in early next year and make a double-album of all original material. That'll be the real birth of this band.
So this year is just the basic introduction.
Yeah, I think this year is mostly about educating people about what this is: there's this band out there, come and check it out. Also we need to become a band. We have so much history between us but it's not until you really play together and tour together do you really become a band. I like the idea of Marc, John and I singing, and then we have three great background singers. What's cool about that for me is that it gives us so much depth as a band. Marc's got a great voice and John has this beautiful - what I like to call - "rock and roll Sam Cooke" voice.
That much stylistic diversity really opens up creative possibilities.
It gives us so much range. We can go from a Bobby Hutcherson song to a War song to a Pink Floyd song to a Faces song to some Crowes songs and the new song, and have it all kinda sound like the same band and not just a bunch of stuff thrown together.
As you well know, it's difficult to maintain a four or five piece, but you have a lot of different personalities to juggle within this band.
The cool thing is, well Nico [Bereciartua] the newest member, is from Argentina. He's a good person and has the best energy but he's been in some bands that weren't so cool and weren't so positive. And obviously, us being in the Black Crowes wasn't very positive. I mean, it was early on and there were moments. But toward the end, it was very dramatic and harsh and not really a cool place to be.
Sounds like this one has a much different vibe already.
Our goal is to rise above all that shit and not go down that petty road. Touring is hard, being away from your family, your home, sleeping on a bus, playing night to night. Like you said, with all the personalities it's hard for the best of us. But we're resolute to not go down that road of bitching about each other or taking things too personally. That's not what we're gonna do. We're focused on maintaining the positive and just seeing what this is - as we work with each other.
At this point, with this many people involved, the possibilities seem endless.
That's what I'm excited about. Every night we play, you can just tell. There's really only been about 17 shows so far, total. Four shows in January, then more shows in April and then eight in July in Europe. It's not like we've had a lot of consistency to say the least. But I'm really excited to see what this band will become in the future, after we have 30 or 40 shows under our belt.
And now you're really jumping in with 60 US shows coming up in the next few months. That's a big commitment.
It is. It's a lot of shows and we're pulling from about 160 songs that we're gonna rotate throughout the year.
You'll probably end up with 300 by the end of the year.
Well, I didn't want to give anyone an aneurism! I have the easy job because I wrote a lot of them, so for someone to come in like John who doesn't know these songs, Jesus, he's got to learn timing and pitch and melody and phrasing and lyrics. And the songs change every night. So we're taking it slowly, but what's cool to me about live music is the humanity of it. I don't think anyone ever complained about a Zeppelin record because John Bonham sped up on the chorus.
The Magpie Salute plays August 18 at the Buckhead Theater. For tickets, info and merch, visit themagpiesalute.com.