Rich Robinson Has Birds On The Brain
From The Black Crowes to The Magpie Salute, Rich Robinson was determined to erase doubt about his abilities as a songwriter
Rich Robinson announced his band The Magpie Salute in 2016 knowing he had a lot to prove.
The Black Crowes co-founder had demonstrated his chops on guitar since the Crowes were founded in the mid-1980s, but it was widely accepted that Robinson’s brother, Chris, was the lyricist.
The Magpie Salute’s genesis three years ago is newsworthy for three entirely different reasons. First, the band just released its second studio album High Water II on October 18. Second, The Black Crowes’ third album Amorica. turned 25 on November 1. And finally, the rumors swirling that The Black Crowes might be reuniting for the first time since calling it quits in 2015 have been answered with a surprise performance at the Bowery Ballroom on November 11th and the announcement of a 2020 tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut LP Shake Your Moneymaker.
VIDEO: The Black Crowes perform “Seein’ Things” at the Bowery Ballroom, NYC 11/11/19
The reunion news is odd given the hostility that’s grown between the brothers over the years (it never quite got to the Noel and Liam Gallagher level of nasty, but the Robinson brothers certainly didn’t shy from criticizing one another publicly). At the root of the Crowes’ 2015 dissolution was ownership of the material, which came into question because of the way the songwriting duties were divided, with Chris producing most of the lyrics and Robinson creating the music to match them.
Robinson confronted this early during interviews about Magpie, assuring listeners that his experience made him well-equipped to dig deeper into songwriting. He was determined to show that Magpie would be more than a Black Crowes cover band but understood there had to be room for both his new material and the tried-and-true fan favorites, especially since the lineup features Crowes pros Marc Ford on guitar and Sven Pipien on bass. It helped that the band premiered to an overwhelmingly warm reception: Magpie’s three-night debut at the Gramercy Theater in New York in early 2017 quickly expanded to four nights to meet popular demand, and critics and fans alike showered the group with praise.
But the real test was still to come. To meet it, Robinson devised a plan to release two studio albums with close ties. The first, High Water I, would serve as an introduction. The second, High Water II, would turn up the heat.
VIDEO: The Magpie Salute “Thorn’s Progress” > “Thorn In My Pride” live in London 2017
In an interview with Rolling Stone six months before High Water I dropped, Robinson voiced some of the frustration he felt with his brother Chris’ criticism that Magpie was nothing more than a tribute band. At that time, Chris had announced his own Crowes tribute band, As the Crow Flies, only one month earlier. “Chris wrote the lyrics and I wrote all of the music and arranged the songs,” Robinson said. “He’s kind of hinted that wasn’t the case, and him saying I’m in a Black Crowes tribute band is him trying to diminish the fact that those are my songs and I’m out there playing my songs with the guys that actually played on those records.”
A tribute band or two might have been all it would’ve taken to satisfy the fans. But Robinson needed to achieve more than that, and he seemed fairly certain he knew how to do it.
High Water I was released in August 2018 and adored almost instantly by Black Crowes fans. The music’s texture was a clear callback to the Crowes, an obvious result of Robinson’s partnership with Ford and Pipien. The history Robinson developed with his other three bandmates through his solo work (Matt Slocum on keys and Joe Magistro on drums) and brief tenure with Hookah Brown (during which he tapped John Hogg to sing and fill out the guitar and percussion) similarly aided the ease with which the band played together. It was easy to tell on High Water I that the music was constructed and performed by musicians who’d been at it a long time and benefited from those years of experience playing with one another.
But Robinson was only halfway done. When Magpie went into Dark Horse Studios in Nashville to record the first album, they completed the project with a lot of music on the back burners. Those songs traveled with the band as they toured and added a few more ideas to the mix, up until they had a chance to dip into Rockfield Studios in Wales and iron out the details.
The end result feels like a natural place for Magpie to land. The band is more settled on High Water II than it was a year earlier, a likely result of not only playing together more but of receiving affirmation from listeners who found Magpie’s mission worthy. As with High Water I, Robinson took on more songwriting responsibility than he had with the Crowes, writing a few songs himself and pitching in when needed on tracks written by his bandmates, as he did with the chorus in the Ford-written “Lost Boy,” a song that also features a cameo from fiddler Alison Krauss. The give-and-take nature of the songwriting process results in a sound that’s full without being overwhelming, allowing the small, surprising details to carry an even greater weight. Despite the band’s process and dedication to producing original material, the Crowes comparisons have unsurprisingly continued—Robinson is a founding member of each group, after all.
VIDEO: The Magpie Salute at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit, MI 1/25/19
High Water II officially released on October 18 and starts with “Sooner or Later” and “Gimme Something,” both of which sound like they could have been candidates for inclusion on Amorica. The album picks up after the straightforward and lyrically light “Leave It All Behind” with the Robinson-penned “You and I” and “Mother Storm,” the former a sweet ballad and the latter a beautifully constructed piece that harkens back to the Crowes’ early interest in defining rock on their own terms. “Mother Storm” builds into a rolling momentum with a tinkling piano hovering in the background until the final 30 seconds, when Slocum is given space to indulge in a short solo. It’s a somewhat surprising way to end the song but fits perfectly and paves a smooth entryway for “A Mirror,” a breezy-sounding track that incorporates the kind of self-analysis heard on Amorica’s “Cursed Diamond.
The music is deliberate and thoughtful, much like the Crowes were in the mid-1990s. But the words themselves, the way each song transitions into the next and the two-pronged approach of releasing High Water I and II as equal parts of the same story reveal the strategic way Robinson makes music. Each track sets out to accomplish its own goal as one piece in a larger puzzle, and all seem to be part of the vision he has for Magpie. Ultimately, the music comes down to the experiences the band members bring into the studio and the universal elements within each that the band thinks its listeners will find relatable.
With a Crowes reunion in full swing and the latest Magpie Salute album just out the door, there’s no telling what’ll be next for either Robinson brother. Whatever happens, both brothers are likely to retain the fan support they’ve cultivated over three decades of making music.
In Rich Robinson’s case, keeping The Magpie Salute’s momentum going has certainly proven himself as an effective songwriter by now.
AUDIO: The Magpie Salute High Water II (full album)
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