In the middle of November 2013, the Black Crowes played four Colorado dates on what would be the band’s final tour. Rich Robinson, who co-founded the act nearly three decades ago with his brother Chris, says it was a great run, they had a lot of fun, and about 93 percent of the tour was sold out.
“Everyone was getting along really well,” Rich Robinson says. “But Chris, I think, had different plans, and he sprung them on us at the end of that tour.”
As Rich Robinson told Joe Rock on WBAB radio in June, it became about money. “[Chris] felt that he was more important and bigger and better than everyone else, and that's delusional and not the case,” Robinson told the station, “and I just felt like it wasn't very righteous to live that way. And so the band split up.”
While the Crowes officially quit in 2015, the following year Rich Robinson assembled a new band with two former Crowes members: guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Sven Pipien. Drummer Joe Magistro and keyboardist Matt Slocum, who had both been in previous bands with Robinson, joined up. Vocalist John Hogg, who had been in Hookah Brown with Robinson after the Crowes went on hiatus in 2001, also came on board. Former Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch was in the group until his death in November 2016.
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When naming the new band, Robinson says, they didn’t want to ignore where they came from, having members who were once part of the Crowes. He says the magpie is the cousin of the crow, and when saluting a magpie in the morning, one says, “Good morning, captain,” which is also the name of a Crowes song.
“This is where we came from,” Robinson says. “Four guys in the band that were in the Black Crowes. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. We were all cool with it. So where that went from there was just kind of into it. To me, it just made absolute sense. It kind of just said, ‘This is what it needs to be.’”
When first forming the band, Robinson says he reached out to Ford, whom he hadn’t spoken to in a long time, “knowing that he and I always had this musical thing that was really special. The two of us, when we played together, it created something greater than us, in my opinion. So getting together and doing that, I thought that would be kind of a given.”
As it turns out, Ford’s flight to New York got canceled, and he missed the rehearsal for what would be the Magpie Salute’s first gig in Woodstock.
“So we didn’t have a chance to really play together,” Robinson says. “We were going to rehearse the night before, but we didn’t have that chance, which actually wound up being cool because it instantly…. He came walking in the middle of the set the next day. We just went up there and started playing. It just turned out to be what it always was – just that thing that you can’t really put your finger on.”
It was a similar thing with Harsch: Even though they hadn’t played in a while, there was still a bond that “you can’t explain or quantify in any way, shape or form," says Robinson.
From a musical standpoint, it was like picking up where they had left off; there’s a healthier environment in the Magpie Salute, and Robinson says it’s definitely more mellow and positive. “That’s by choice, and that’s by sort of being vigilant and trying to keep it that way,” he says.
He notes that with the Crowes, a lot of times the band was wrought with misery and conflict.
“I think it’s necessary every once in a while, maybe,” he says. “It’s part of the human condition. But I don’t think that it’s anything that people should try to embrace, because it’s just uncool. It’s not a way to live. It’s not a way to be.”
When it came time to pen songs for what ended up on the brand-new album, High Water I, and High Water II, which will be released in early 2019, it was an organic process, according to Robinson. He and Hogg had written songs before in Hookah Brown, and while he and Ford had played a lot together, they had never written together.
“But I kind of knew it would be cool anyway. I mean, I really like his solo work,” Robinson says of Ford. “I thought that his approach and my approach are different, but I thought that we could benefit from each other, from the way that we kind of write music. I feel like I was correct in that assumption. I think the three of us together really have this thing now, which is interesting. It was always like Marc and I get on stage to do this thing that was amazing, but throw John in the mix and what he’s bringing to the table, and his ability to sing and the way that he sees music and his life experience is something that’s really different from [ours]. And that’s what's really cool about it, and that’s what's adding that extra element.”
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While some of the songs on High Water I, like “Send Me an Omen” and “Can You See Me,” evoke the raucous energy of the Crowes, there’s also a unified rock swagger in other cuts — for instance, the vigorous opener, “Mary the Gypsy" — that’s quite different.
When writing songs for both albums, Robinson says the songwriting process should be natural.
“And it shouldn’t be some sort of fake, laborious justification of doing what you do,” Robinson says. "You know, sitting behind some sort of computer screen, which is basically what DJs maybe do, or producers, and drawing something out that shouldn’t really take that long. And just for the justification of ‘This took me so long.” Fuck that. It shouldn’t really take that long. There’s fire. There’s magic. And everything that we do is done with this freedom and this sort of abandon that is what real rock-and-roll music has always had. Corporations measure themselves and think about marketing and how we can sell these things. We don’t do that. We write music.”