Taking Wing

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

When Meatball rolled off into the sunset during the late Seventies, Magnie threw his keyboard in his van and headed to New Orleans in search of his piano-playing idols--the legendary Professor Longhair and the influential but little-known James Booker, who subsequently died at the age of 39. Before long, Magnie was copping licks off both men, often spending nights leaning on the Professor's rig in empty juke joints in the days before Longhair's rediscovery. "That's typical of New Orleans," Magnie says. "You've got all of these great musicians, and they're pretty much taken for granted."

According to Magnie, a high point of his studies came after Longhair watched him play "Big Chief," a Longhair classic. "He told me, 'You play that thing better than Dr. John,'" he remembers. "Later I realized he might have been knocking John down more than praising me--but that was a big moment for me." Fewer compliments came from Booker, for whom Magnie served as driver and de facto errand boy. "He pretty much treated me like shit," he says, laughing. "But I guess I felt like it was some kind of an apprenticeship. I really felt like he was a brilliant player who didn't get his due. He really was a genius." Hanging around these talents was, Magnie allows, "a dream come true."

So, too, was Magnie's stint in the Subdudes, which rose to prominence in the late Eighties around the same time that Big Head Todd and the Monsters and the Samples were arriving on the scene. The swelling number of "Dudeheads" who flocked to Herman's Hideaway and other clubs to see the band eventually caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which issued a pair of Subdudes long-players, 1989's Subdudes and 1991's Lucky. The band subsequently shifted to High Street, a subsidiary of Windham Hill, for two more studio offerings, 1994's Annunciation and 1996's Primitive Streak--but by the time this last disc was hitting stores, the sheen of success had started to fade. Magnie says the band fared better financially when it was doing shows around the state, before record-label staffs, managers and various employees had started nibbling on the group's fiscal pie. There were musical snares as well.

"It got to the point that it was so loud on stage that I felt like I wasn't even there," Amedee says. "And I felt like those guys didn't care--like they were just going through the motions."

"When we were on the road with the Subdudes, it was much harder to get together and write and be creative," Magnie goes on. "There were times at the end that we were getting great crowds, but because the creative process was kind of going sour, we weren't having as much fun as before--and it kind of didn't matter that we weren't excited anymore. Unfortunately, that's what musicians usually do. As soon as things start getting laid out and successful, they get bored and start looking around. We were also writing in a very collaborative style, and when the band was over, the direction I took was more..."

"Mature," Amedee interjects.
"Maybe so," Magnie ventures, scratching his beard while a magpie in a nearby tree looks him over, its black-oiled tuxedo coat and tails gleaming in the sunlight. "I've been listening to a lot of the old classic songwriters and artists--guys like Buck Owens, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard--and guys like Louie Prima and Nat King Cole, too. I'm wanting to write our own chapter of that style of music. I'm writing more for the listener. Musically, you go through stages, and you're always looking for the next phase, especially in terms of monetary rewards. But when you look back on it all, the funnest times are usually in the creative part, and sometimes that money part can get in the way of that. The money part for us right now is not so good, but the creative part is rich."

Subdudes reunion shows, including one at the recent New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where Magpie also played a set, have helped remedy the cash-flow problem on occasion, and a record deal may improve matters further. But although numerous imprints have expressed interest in Trinkets, an EP Magpie is in the process of assembling, the musicians don't want to rush into anything--especially since they're enjoying the opportunity to play Colorado roadhouses again.

"I feel much more happy on stage here," Amadee says, "and it's a lot more satisfying for me to play with this band than the Subdudes. A lot more. And all of the stuff about us going back to a basic level--that doesn't matter to me at all, because playing is supposed to be fun. If you play for fifty people and they all love you, to me that's better than playing for a thousand people who are all talking to each other and drinking beer."

"There've been times when I thought about quitting, maybe because of knowing I'd have to face questions like, 'How does it feel to be playing a little bar when you used to play big concerts?'" Magnie admits. "Well, I came to the conclusion that I just want to play music anyway; I'm a lifer. And the other thing about it is, we're all out there working, and sometimes it just gets down to that: It's work. There's up and downs to it, and that's the way it is.

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