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.

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.

"People might find it hard to believe, but I don't feel that much different," he says. "When I had the monetary success, I had all kinds of things to bitch about then. Now that there isn't as much money, I've still got probably the same amount of pain and joys about it. It's weird, but it doesn't make all that much difference. See, the whole music thing, I just appreciate it as a game. And I'm just happy to still be playing in it."

Magpie. 8 p.m. Thursday, May 6, the Soiled Dove, 1949 Market Street, $7, 303-299-0100.

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