Headed back to town as part of the new Magpie Salute for Friday and Saturday shows at Metro, I spoke to guitarist Rich Robinson about the live Woodstock performances that spawned his new band, working again with guitarist Marc Ford and revisiting his work with the Black Crowes...
In August of 2016, former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson performed a series of live shows at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, New York in support of his fourth solo album Flux. For those shows, looking to try something different, he recruited several former Black Crowes members: guitarist Marc Ford, bassist Sven Pipien and keyboard player Eddie Harsch.
"It was really going to be just that weekend," said Robinson of the lineup for the Woodstock shows. "And, while we were up there, we all could feel – us and the audience – could really feel how special this was. And how it just kind of completed a circle that you didn’t even know needed to be completed," he continued of an experience which saw him look back at the Black Crowes for the first substantial time since their 2015 break up.
"[The] four of us have a brotherhood together musically that dominated everything and we felt it right away," added guitarist Marc Ford during a November interview. "And it was just like, 'Man… That right there is why we do it.' That otherworldly communication."
As the strength of those performances continued to resonate, Robinson announced the formation of the Magpie Salute shortly thereafter in October of 2016 - a ten piece band which was to feature ex-Crowes Ford, Harsch, Pipien and Robinson alongside vocalist John Hogg (who worked with Robinson in the group Hookah Brown).
But only weeks after that announcement, Harsch passed away unexpectedly at the age of 59.
Moving ahead with keyboard player Matt Slocum, the group started 2017 with their first live performances as Magpie Salute in New York at the Gramercy Theatre. From there, they released their self-titled debut album this past June, one which features some of Harsch's last recorded performances. Recorded live as a full band in another session at Applehead, the album features scorching live takes on tracks from artists like the Faces, War, Pink Floyd and the Black Crowes.
Rich Robinson always functioned as the Crowes' more rock leaning heart and "Omission," the sole original track on the new album, cooks, offering perhaps a glimpse of where Magpie Salute could be headed as they continue to road test new material in preparation for future studio recordings.
I spoke over the phone with Rich Robinson about the art of recording live, performing again with Marc Ford and revisiting the Black Crowes in a more positive setting as the Magpie Salute readies a pair of weekend shows at Metro. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below.
Q. I spoke with Marc Ford in October about his solo album and it was very shortly after you made the initial Magpie Salute announcement – two weeks before Eddie Harsch passed away actually. And, at that point, even that early on in the project, he described the inner workings of the band as “otherworldly communication.” You hear Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood describe the ancient art of weaving – what’s it like for you playing with Marc Ford?
Rich Robinson: It's one of those things you can’t really put a finger on. For me, it just works.
Someone, the other day, and it was actually pretty apropos, said chemistry is chemistry. There’s someone that could come in that could play all the notes in the world, and is the most technically perfect player there is, but it really comes down to just taste and chemistry and timing.
What he hears in his sort of guttural ideas off of what I’m playing, and vice versa, is what makes that connection that strong.
Q. Eddie was there for your initial Woodstock shows, was slated to be there for the Gramercy shows and then passed away one month after your initial Magpie announcement. The band was barely off the ground at that point. Did his passing ever threaten to derail the project?
RR: No. It was more kind of Ed’s spirit.
When we [first] did it, it was my Woodstock sessions for Flux when I was on tour. And so I was touring and it was cool and I had done [an Applehead/Woodstock session] before so I kind of knew the deal.
But I wanted to do something different. So I reached out to Marc [Ford] and Ed. And it was just a really organic thing. I’m like, “Oh, let’s just bring those guys in and play.”
I really want to play with people that inspire me. My band inspires me but also bringing those guys in and opening up these things – I thought that would be a really cool thing to do. And that’s all it was.
It was really going to be just that weekend. And, while we were up there, we all could feel – us and the audience – could really feel how special this was. And how it just kind of completed a circle that you didn’t even know needed to be completed.
So, when we were leaving, Ed came up and was like, “Man, we need to do this. This is what we need to do. This felt so good.” And everyone really felt that way.
So when Ed passed, it was a shock, it was sad and it was really not a good thing. It was horrible. But if anyone was there to sort of witness Ed’s joy and satisfaction – it was almost like he had been waiting for that weekend. I know it was only three days but Ed was so happy. I hadn’t seen him that happy – and he was playing so well – it was almost one of those things where he was like, “This is it.” And maybe subconsciously it was.
Q. Well, several members of Magpie Salute have a history that connects with the Black Crowes in some way. Obviously, that’s been a shadow that’s loomed pretty large over the years – but it’s one that you seem to be embracing now. What’s it been like putting a new spin on that chapter of your life and career?
RR: Well, we’ve really only been together just a blink of an eye but every time we get together it feels great.
You know, there was always negativity – a huge negative energy – floating over the Crowes for years. So this group of people is very forthright about not having that around. We’re very just proactive about having it be something a lot more positive.
We’re not going to fall into this trap of sitting at the back of the bus bitching about someone going, “This sucks…” Everyone has space and time to listen to everyone else. We talk.
It’s not going to be something like what used to happen which was really counterproductive and negative.
Q. The blues is a style that we can hear in all of this music – the Crowes, the new covers, etc. Did you grow up as a fan of Chicago blues?
RR: I always leaned more towards country blues. I always leaned towards Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Bukka White – that kind of playing always really reached me on a deeper level.
Q. The album was recorded live which is amazing because it sounds so good that you forget that it’s recorded live until the applause kicks in between tracks. But I think that process lends kind of an urgency that you can hear in these recordings. You’ve done several live recordings now in Woodstock. What is it about that process that speaks to you?
RR: Well, to me, it’s just a cool experience. It’s cool for us, it’s cool for them.
It’s not a full studio experience in the sense that we take time to change out snares and switch guitar amps and play fifteen different guitars and really take our time.
A lot of times, I’ll use the studio to develop a song. But, when it’s this, and when people are there, you have to make guttural, quick decisions – gut decisions that you’re not thinking about. And, when people come from that place, I think it’s always better. Nine times out of ten.
I think overthinking a part becomes a little too… For some people, at least for me, it always felt a little too precious in a sense. And rock and roll music is reckless in a sense. And I think it needs to have that feeling. And I think that being in front of a live audience and doing that creates that feeling.
Q. I think back to your time with the Black Crowes backing Jimmy Page. And it was clearly important to Jimmy to revisit those Led Zeppelin songs – songs that he wrote – even if it was with different players. Was that experience an influence on you at all as you started thinking about the Magpie Salute and revisiting your work with the Black Crowes kind of for the first time?
RR: Yeah, that was one of the things.
Ultimately, I had to think about that decision for a little while. Because I didn’t know if I was going to play those songs. Chris and I wrote those songs.
But I started adding them into my set. And when I out to Woodstock and did the thing with Marc and Ed, and I saw the joy in people’s eyes when they heard these songs for the first time in a long time, it just really hit me what this band meant to people. That’s what you want to do when you’re a kid. You get in a band and you want your songs to mean something. That’s what I want.
It wasn’t about anything but the fact that I was a huge fan of music. And, at the end of the day, if someone loved my music as much as I love Exile on Main St., then that’s what it’s about.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Friday and Saturday's Magpie Salute shows at Metro below)
Friday, July 28, 2017
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Doors open at 8PM
Shows start at 9PM
18 and over
Also performing: The Trews Acoustic Duo
Tickets: $35 (per concert)
Click HERE to purchase tickets