Around the time Rich Robinson released his last solo album, 2016’s Flux, the former Black Crowes guitarist journeyed to Applehead Studios in Woodstock, New York, to perform and record with his band in front of a live audience as part of the ongoing Woodstock Sessions. Robinson had taken part in the series once before, in 2014, and so this time he decided to try something a little different.
“I reached out to Marc Ford,” Robinson says, naming his one-time Black Crowes co-guitarist, who played on classic efforts like 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and 1994’s Amorica. Ford, with whom Robinson hadn’t spoken in more than a decade, said he was in. The next call Robinson made was to former Black Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch. “And Ed said, ‘I’m there,'” he recalls. The two joined Robinson and his band (which also includes latter-years Crowes bassist Sven Pipien), as well as various other musicians, in Woodstock, and over the course of three days laid down an assortment of covers from the likes of Delaney & Bonnie (“Comin’ Home”), Pink Floyd (“Fearless”), the Faces (“Glad and Sorry”) and Bobby Hutcherson (“Goin’ Down South”), among others, as well as extended, jammy run-throughs of Crowes nuggets like “What is Home” and the Amorica standout “Wiser Time.”
While the musicians were playing at Applehead, Robinson recalls, “I thought it was just gonna be, ‘Hey, here’s some more solo material for the band. …'” But the recordings wound up serving as the foundation for an entirely new outfit, the Magpie Salute, which will release its 10-track self-titled debut on June 9th. Today, Rolling Stone is premiering the album’s explosive opener, “Omission,” which is also the new band’s sole original composition. “Symbolically, it’s something that is just ours,” Robinson says of “Omission,” which features John Hogg, who had previously played with the guitarist in another project, Hookah Brown, on vocals. “It just was one of those things that was so organic, and it turned out great.”
The Magpie Salute is currently gearing up for a full-scale U.S. and European tour this summer. As for what people can expect to hear at these shows? That remains to be seen. “We’re going to be changing set lists every night,” Robinson says. “We’re learning about 100 songs to start with. There’ll be a lot of Crowes material, a lot of solo material, different covers, maybe new songs. It’s just something that’s going to keep growing and changing as we move along.”
This past January, the Magpie Salute made its live debut at New York’s Gramercy Theatre. Due to overwhelming ticket demand, what was initially scheduled to be one show quickly swelled to four consecutive-night sold-out performances, a fact that speaks to the intense fan base that still exists for the music Robinson made with his brother, vocalist Chris Robinson, in the Black Crowes. But given the siblings’ well-documented contentious relationship, and their seeming estrangement – at least musically – since that band called it quits for a second time in 2015, it appears that for anyone still jonesing for a Black Crowes fix, the Magpie Salute, with three former Crowes in tow (sadly, Harsch passed away on November 4th at the age of 59), is as close to it as they’re likely to get.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Robinson confirms. “This is basically it. That band won’t be together again.”
On the other hand, he adds, the future looks bright for the Magpie Salute. “I’m happy to be where I am now,” Robinson says. “I think this band is great – this is an evolution, and this is where we’re heading. The potential for us is limitless.”
The Magpie Salute seemed to spring from that first call you made to your former Black Crowes bandmate Marc Ford. Why did you reach out to him specifically?
Marc and I have always had this really deep musical connection. And, you know, he was always my favorite guitar player in the Crowes. I mean, everyone who’s played in the Crowes has been great. But Marc and I have this thing that’s really deep. And so I called him. I hadn’t talked to him directly since probably ’06. But I just thought, “Well, let’s see if Marc wants to come and play. …”
After Marc said yes, why was Eddie Harsch the next call you made?
I love Ed. He was a great person and we always kept in touch. And once Ed was in, we showed up to play and it was like we never left each other. The musical chemistry between the three of us is undeniable. And then you start thinking about the amount of time you spent with one another on tour. I mean, Eddie and I had spent over a decade on a bus. Marc and I, the same thing. And the three of us together. But, you know, originally Marc was more kind of brought in [to the Black Crowes] by Chris, my brother. So although Marc and I had this deep musical connection, a lot of times on a personal level there was kind of a line that almost had to be drawn. So I don’t feel like I was able to get to know Marc personally as much as I would have liked to.
So what happened once Marc and Eddie convened with you at Applehead?
Once we got to Woodstock and we were able to start working and playing it was, “Hey, man, let’s play these songs and see what happens.” There’s never too much planning going on. It just felt right. We had a lot of fun, it was three days and then I continued on my solo tour. But I was thinking, “How can we do this more? I love those guys and I really want to play with them more. And I love these guys that are in my band and I really want to play with them more.” So I thought about it for a couple weeks. And just through time I kind of came up with this concept for the Magpie Salute. Like, “Let’s do this and see what happens.”
The Magpie Salute is a big band. What do you find appealing about that?
There’s something that’s really cool about having a bunch of people onstage playing, but where it sounds like it’s not a bunch of people onstage playing, if that makes any sense. Like Delaney & Bonnie, one of my favorite bands. Or [Joe Cocker’s] Mad Dogs & Englishmen. You have these people onstage and everyone is so musically proficient that it just works. There’s a discipline there and there’s these constant moving parts, but there’s this thing and it’s amazing. And originally Marc and I were going to sing the majority of the songs, but then I was like, “Well, look, let’s bring in my friend John [Hogg].” He was in a band called Moke, and then he played with me in my first non-Crowes band called Hookah Brown. He’s an amazing singer and I’m a huge fan of his. So I said, “Let’s do this. Let’s open up the Crowes catalog. Let’s play more of our songs, let’s play covers, let’s see what happens.” Not unlike when you have Phil Lesh or Bob Weir going out, doing Furthur and those types of things. The Other Ones. I was like, “This could be really cool.”
“This is an evolution, and this is where we’re heading.”
Can you talk about the music we’re hearing on The Magpie Salute?
The record came from Woodstock. All of us were there making this recording. We had two great singers, we had my whole band, and we had Marc and Ed. The only one who was missing was John Hogg. And we had all this material. Everyone loved it. Then we brought John in and he overdubbed some cool vocals and we had a Magpie record.
This was not the first recording you’ve done for Woodstock Sessions, and the final Black Crowes album, Before the Frost … Until the Freeze, was also recorded live in the studio in front of an audience. What do you like about that process?
When you play in front of people, there’s an energy there. It’s almost like a wagon wheel with the spokes. The hub is what everyone’s there for, but everyone has a different angle, a different spoke going in a different way, for being there. And everyone’s experience is different. It’s personal. It’s intimate. But there’s also a group experience. So we’re experiencing the audience, they’re experiencing us, and we’re all experiencing this music. The energy that brings is really good fuel for doing something creative. Also, the way I like to record is to go in there and just sort of wing it. Just see what happens. In the days of unlimited recording budgets, there wasn’t any urgency to that. Whereas these days I’m interested in the gut reaction. What’s the first thing you’re going to play? Because that first thing is not filtered. The first thing is going to really come more from your heart. And that’s what’s exciting to me. So we went in, it was a finite amount of time, three days, and we were done. And it was great.
How did you choose the covers to perform?
These are just ones that I’ve been playing with my band, like Bobby Hutcherson’s “Goin’ Down South.” “Fearless” was one Marc had done in the past, and I used to sing it in the Crowes. So it was a hybrid of things we had done before. [Bob Marley and the Wailers’] “Time Will Tell,” we had done that on The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, and I was like, “This could be kind of cool. …” And “Wiser Time,” I really like the way John and I sing it together. So it was just about picking songs that everyone would sound good on and where we could bring different elements of what we do into it. And I think we did 70 or 80 songs at Woodstock. And we did 80 songs in New York [at the Gramercy Theatre shows]. Pretty much every set was different in New York. The songs on the record, I thought it’d be a cool snapshot and would show a broad spectrum of what sort of musical ground we covered in Woodstock.
In the early days of your solo career you stayed away from performing Black Crowes material. These days you’re doing more of it in your own sets, and there’s obviously a big Crowes connection in the Magpie Salute, both in terms of the lineup and also the songs you perform. It seems that you’re more comfortable with revisiting that part of your history.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, these are songs that people wanna hear, you know? These are songs that I wrote and that I have a lot of respect for. Also, I think we play them really well. And John sings them really well. John’s not Chris, but he knows he’s not Chris and he’s not trying to sing like Chris. He’s sticking relatively to the melody but he’s also bringing himself to them. And the more we play, the more of him that will come out. But this was something cool that we could do where we could celebrate the music we played together, me and Marc and Sven and Eddie. And Joe Magistro, our drummer, played percussion in the Crowes for a year. Charity White, who sings on the album, was with us for five years. We’ve all been circling around it. So it’s appropriate. I even called [former Black Crowes drummer] Steve Gorman and asked him to come play, but he wasn’t available. We had talked to him but he has his radio show and his own band and he wanted to work on that.
As far as former Black Crowes members you reached out to for this project, you’ve mentioned Marc, Eddie, Sven and Steve. One person obviously missing from that lineup of names is your brother, Chris. Could you envision a scenario where the two of you might make music together again, as the Black Crowes or otherwise?
I mean, right now … I don’t think so. You can never tell the future, you know? But right now? No.
Will you do another solo record?
Well, I’m not thinking that far in advance! [Laughs] But I have two albums’ worth of solo material that I haven’t released from this recent Woodstock Sessions. Over that three days I also did a bunch of my own material, with just my band. So I do have that. But right now I’m really excited about this, and we’re moving forward on this front.
So you see the Magpie Salute as an ongoing pursuit, not merely a one-off.
Absolutely. And we’re starting to write songs now. I’ve been sending Marc and John ideas and we’re gonna start preparing a record and may even start playing some new songs on tour toward the end of the year. Then once we get off tour, we’ll take a month off and go straight into the studio and make a record. That’s my goal. In fact, the ultimate goal is to go into the studio early next year and make a double album. I want to have this be a band and start moving forward, you know?