The Magpie Salute is a brawny, hard-hitting ten-piece rock and roll band headed by co-founder of the Black Crowes, Rich Robinson, in a renewed partnership with former bandmates Marc Ford and Sven Pipien. If it seems surprising that the group’s eponymous first album is largely comprised of cover material, but make no mistake this is an intentional and purposeful decision. Robinson has a story to tell here and the listener doesn’t need to know much (if anything) about the turbulent history of the Crowes to hear a catharsis here because the impact comes through as forcefully in the playing as the lyrics of the songs.
There is but one new original number on this record, “Omission,” a sturdy, soulful rocker which boasts the same emotional and instrumental intelligence of any of this bandleader’s work under his own name. The remaining nine tracks come from a remarkably wide range of sources, beginning immediately after that opening number with Delaney & Bonnie’s “Comin’ Home;” initially recorded by the Southern duo with Eric Clapton in tow, the guitar motif is tailor-made for riffing from Robinson and his fretboard partner Ford, while the tune also lends itself to a featured role for former Crowes touring singer Charity White to bring out the gospel feel in the tune as her voice joins with those of Adrien Reju and Katrine Ottosen,
The combination of all those elements, within the comparative brevity of a four-minute cut, constitutes legitimate and necessary homage to influential artists. At the same time, that track introduces a theme of a legitimate tribute to roots that permeates this album and acts as a conduit for its emotional narrative. Recorded live in front of a small audience at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, the selection of material is a combustible mix that serves to ignite the chemistry of the musicians and singers that make up the Magpie Salute.
The recently-deceased Eddie Harsch is quite prominent with his barrelhouse piano on “What is Home,” a selection from the final Black Crowes album Before the Frost, Until the Freeze. Additionally layered with guitars for its seven minute duration, that number is a collective exercise in poise and patience further extended in a virtual segue with an older standouts in the Crowes’ canon, “Wiser Time:” here the glistening electric piano from the long-time keyboardist of the Black Crowes is as insinuating as the group harmony vocals.
Guitar partners Robinson and Ford exhibit as much taste as a restraint during that number, virtues that serve them equally well during the instrumental “Goin’ Down South;” written by a modern master of the vibes, Bobby Hutcherson. This courageous song choice subsequently fades into a string of interpretations that, individually and collectively, express a range of emotions as dense as the arrangements of the songs: little wonder six of the ten cuts here run seven to nine minutes long because the Magpie Salute find as much emotional meaning as instrumental inspiration in tunes by War (“War Drums”), Pink Floyd (“Fearless”) and Faces (“Glad and Sorry”),
Along those same lines, Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell” is a telling cull from the second Black Crowes album, Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, significantly placed it at the conclusion of an album that even as it serves to exorcise some personal demons, simultaneously honors a larger legacy. On “Ain’t No More Cane, ”a traditional tune from the repertoire of The Band; Rich Robinson and company not only engage in uplifting harmonies, but engage in vocal trade-offs in clear homage to the singing style of that iconic group (and, by extension, their own influence from the Staples Singers).
Despite its comparatively subdued mix, that cut may, in fact, stand as the benchmark by which to measure this entire record, if only because its resounding sound quality is such a direct echo of its passion. The Magpie Salute’s forthright recognition of its source material on this debut of theirs is clearly a means to further its own creative avenues of expression.