Taking Wing

The Subdudes may be grounded, but Magpie's flying high.

Pianist/accordionist John Magnie and drummer/percussionist Steve Amedee, the key members of a new quartet called Magpie, were once half of the Subdudes, a group that earned a lofty place in Colorado music history and an impressive national reputation prior to its 1996 breakup. But on this April afternoon, the two, joined by Magpie bassist Tim Cook and guitarist Jay Clear, are toiling away in a basement like a thousand other undiscovered acts. As Magnie puts it, "We're a local band now. Whether it's charming or not, it's the truth."

Maybe so, but Magpie is certainly more entertaining to hear than most fledgling outfits. After Clear warms up with a passage from Link Wray's "Rumble," his mates settle in and the foursome slides into a loping honky-tonker, with Cook providing a straitlaced bottom end, Amedee spanking out a solid, down-home beat and Clear punctuating it all with rootsy fills on his hand-tooled Les Paul. Meanwhile, Magnie delivers gutsy vocals as his hands dance across the keys and his lengthy soul patch wriggles under his chin like a confused wisp of smoke. Over it all, the men send up high-altitude harmonies that perfectly accent the country spirit filling the cramped space.

The players deliver more of the same during the next hour, spiking the mix with doses of homestyle gospel, rollicking rhythm and blues and esoteric four-chord treasures brimming with feeling and knee-deep grooves. The music differs from the Subdudes' thick gumbo that was built on the funky bass lines of Johnny Ray Allen and the husky timbres and six-string sting of frontman Tommy Malone. Magnie, whose lean, handsome face and sweeping gray hair call to mind a Civil War-era snake-oil pitchman, is in the first chair now, and Amedee keeps time on a full-grown drum kit, not the tambourine he used in days past. And whereas the Subdudes staged a near-constant Cajun party, Magpie works on a smaller, more intimate scale. But the results are completely authentic and undeniably joyous. It's the sound of men happy to be back on the job.

Their vocation is currently taking the Magpie four to in-state locales such as Sterling, Bennett, Elizabeth, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs--settings far less tony than the major cities that once dotted the Subdudes' itinerary. But Magnie isn't complaining. "That's just the way this business works," he says. "It runs in cycles, and it happens to everybody."

Adds Cook, who served as the Subdudes' tour manger for several years, "These gigs are giving us a chance to work out these songs, and it's exciting for me to see John and Steve hang tough doing these small towns and getting into the songs. John is on a roll right now."

Based on Magnie's most recent creative output, Cook's right. While working odd jobs to support his family, including his wife of over twenty years and two kids presently attending Colorado State University, Magnie has put together an outstanding collection of stately, timeless tunes for Magnie, his current solo disc. One of the finest recordings of the year, the CD sports spare arrangements, sparkling lyrical imagery, Magnie's gritty vocals, and fine contributions from Amedee, Cook and guests such as Celeste Krenz and Bob Tyler. The platter may not consistently thrill believers in the Subdudes' groove-oriented, party-time material, but its blend of sunny feel-gooders ("Each and Every Day," "Waiting for the Mail") and bluesy piano strollers ("Biding My Time," "Confection") will surely save those who craved the band's sanctifying soul and gospel. Even better are "Like a Ghost" and "If Wishing Made It So," a pair of haunting laments that deliver bittersweet bliss. In the quiet passages of these two gems, a listener can almost hear the state of Colorado weeping along with Magnie.

The mixture of snow-capped moods and Louisiana twang that infuses hybrid numbers such as "Blue Mountain Girl" comes naturally to Magnie, a Denver native (and longtime Fort Collins resident) who feels very much at home in bayou country. "I appreciate both places so much," he says. "New Orleans is a land of mystery, and it's in everything, even the weather. The evenings there are very heavy and mysterious and seem like they're full of danger--what you might call 'voodoo.' It's the kind of place where you might look up in a window of the French Quarter and there might be a vampire actually living up there." On the other side of the equation, he points out, is the more freewheeling Rocky Mountain aesthetic: "In the pioneer feel of the West, it's more like you create your own traditions--and the inspiration of the West is more toward the individual."

Magnie's father, the son of a Fort Lupton farmer who exemplified such values, moved to Denver and started a family of eight kids. John, the oldest child, went to a parochial high school (now called Machebeuf) that instilled in him a love for Latin-tongued ritual as well as a lingering sense of Catholic guilt. After graduation, Magnie did semesters at three state colleges before trading the rituals of school for those of the working musician. His first group, Meatball, played blues for Denverites before relocating to Steamboat Springs, where a shortage of bands meant lots of work. The combo set up in a commune on an area ranch for several years, paying the bills via its gigs.

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