Although Rich Robinson is best known as the former co-founder and guitarist of The Black Crowes, he’s been more prolific as a solo artist the past 15 years (four solo albums), versus the two original albums The Black Crowes put out over the same time. So as his brother Chris has been equally prolific and road steady with The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, it was only a matter of time before Rich would gather up troupes of his own for something bigger, bolder and brighter. And he wasn’t kidding about the bigger as The Magpie Outfit incorporates ten players in a colorful ensemble that just released its self-titled debut LP on June 9th.
The 10-piece Magpie Salute returns Robinson with Marc Ford and Sven Pipien of The Black Crowes, along with drummer Joe Magistro and guitarist Nico Bereciartua plus new keyboardist Michael Bellar replacing former Crowes member Eddie Harsch who passed away last November. The band’s primary vocal duties are handled by lead singer John Hogg (Hookah Brown, Moke) along with support from former Crowes singer Charity White and background singers Adrien Reju and Katrine Ottosen.
As The Tedeschi Trucks Band that has proven you can tour with a large scale group rooted in the rock and soul fundamentals of yesterday, The Magie Salute hopes to bring its very own rock and roll circus yearly to U.S. cities, but right now it has big current plans. The band first surfaced this past January with four back-to-back sold-out shows at the Gramercy Theatre in New York. Then came the announcement of their debut in London where the group performed four enthusiastically received concerts at Under The Bridge (April 12-15), with the first show selling out shortly within an hour of the tickets going on presale. With an enormous stateside tour kicking off in July, the band has recently extended the outing by another 20 dates this fall including a two-night stand at Irving Plaza in NYC on November 15 and 16.
Hogg served with Robinson under the short-lived Hookah Brown in 2003 following the first Crowes hiatus and has circled back to lend his charismatic vocals to Magpie’s setlist of covers and originals, including the blistering lead track “Omission.” We recently had the chance to speak with Hogg about all things Mapgie Salute and get the vocalists’ perspective on helping launching a new band….
You wrote the lyrics to “Omission,” the album’s first single. What inspired the song?
This started as another one of Rich’s riffs which he had recorded and worked into a complete song format by the time we met for our first New York gigs. It was the last unfinished song he and I had worked on together as ‘Hookah Brown.’ I was interested in the idea of how things are omitted in life to make way for other things either through choice or circumstance. The absence of one thing creating the presence of another. We never originally got to demo the song so all Rich had was an old live bootleg as a reference and amazingly he put the basic track together with Joe (the band’s drummer) based on that. My vocal, Sven’s bass, Marc’s solo and lead parts, Matt’s Hammond part and all Charity, Kat and Adrien’s harmonies were recorded very quickly up in Woodstock in an afternoon as we were preparing for the first Gramercy shows in New York.
Can you walk us through the special chemistry of The Magpie Salute—a 10-piece band, a rarity in rock–and exactly why it works?
At the band’s core is the vision and musicianship of Rich. His ability as a performer, songwriter, musician and bandleader is unquestionable. Then you have the unique relationship he has with Marc, another incredible musician and songwriter, whose free spirit seems intertwined with Rich’s, particularly when they play guitar together. That is quite something to be around. On top of that you have Sven and Joe as rhythm section, both spectacular players who gel together and share history with Rich through The Black Crowes and Rich Robinson solo albums. With Matt having such great feel on keys, Nico being such an amazing and versatile guitarist and Charity, Kat and Adrien singing so beautifully together all I have to do is sing on top. It’s a really amazing sound we all make when it comes together.
You began working with Rich many years ago in the band Hookah Brown. Can you talk about how the two of you are musically in synch?
I remember Rich being particularly welcoming to me when I was in my old band ‘Moke’ and we had been invited by The Black Crowes to be their opening act. When that band stopped and Rich first took a break from the Crowes, he naturally had loads of new material and wanted to try something different so he called me up to see what I was doing. The music he was making at that time was a powerful departure in some ways from the Crowes, particularly as it was a 3-piece sound with just his guitar, bass and drums. I think we also shared a love for some of the more melodic side to music whether it was Bukka White’s, Steve Marriott’s or Sam Cooke’s singing or The Beatles. When I first arrived to jam over some tracks he’d been working on, the band was set up in someone’s apartment. It sounded really great but people were freaking out in the building because it was so loud. I think somebody complained at the door saying it sounded like a festival or something was going on and Rich was kind of ‘what’s that guy’s problem?’ which was funny because the whole of that part of Manhattan must have been able to hear it from the street. He then relocated to an old studio on 23rd Street which used to be the Beastie Boys’ and we recorded and rehearsed there before going out on the road. I guess we share some musical tastes and he could sense that in me.
As a British musician of Swedish/African descent, how do you feel this influences what you bring to The Magpie Salute?
Perhaps there’s a perpetual sense of displacement, not quite Clayton Bigsby but it may have lead to my view of music being quite diverse and independent. There seems to be a similar thing if you come from ‘the south’ in America. You even get ‘Obeah Men’ practicing voodoo in places like Mississippi which is the same name given to mystics and sorcerers from the Igbo tribe. My Mother’s Nigerian and my Father grew up in Sweden near Stockholm. They met in England in the late fifties when it was hard to rent because of the ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ policy. I guess a decision was made not to speak the Igbo language or Swedish at home. English was also their common language. I remember all the music as a child on television from Marc Bolan to The Sex Pistols and when John Lennon got shot, I, along with probably a million other kids, wanted a guitar.
There is something limitless about The Magpie Salute, nightly rotating songs from a massive repertoire and performing songs that musically stretch out to bring the musicians and audience to a higher level. What are your feelings about this?
It’s an amazing thing to be part of a band of such incredible musicians that the approach to the live set can be this way. It’s certainly the most challenging musical situation I’ve ever been in and I love it. The fact that this was born partly out of Rich, Marc and Sven’s love of playing in a band with Eddie is very telling. I know Rich loved and respected Eddie for his musicality and personality and for him to have passed on just as we started meant that in a way his energy is forever part of it.
As a singer and interpreter, what do you feel you bring to the songs of The Black Crowes?
Hopefully something a little different without losing what was so great about those songs. What we play can range from being melodic and restrained to having that strong, rock/soul power which I loved in Chris’s voice. When you’re singing someone else’s songs you are telling someone else’s story so the journey from here to us eventually having much more of our own original music will be intense and rewarding. Ultimately we are all fans of the music we are playing and I think it shows.
What is your biggest guilty pleasure (film, album, or other)?
I suppose I don’t feel too guilty about my pleasures…I did used to listen to things like The Muppet Show Album Volumes 1 & 2 but I was just a kid. We all used to listen to Gary Glitter back then and look how that turned out…
Which famous historical event would you like to have witnessed and why?
I would have quite liked to be there when Jesus walked on water. Mainly to see if he thought there was some trick to it or if it really was something we can all do.
What do you look forward to most when you return home from touring?
Seeing my family.
Is there a song you crank up on Friday night to kick off the weekend—and a song you kick back with on a Sunday morning?
Songs I’ve enjoyed cranking up have been things like “Voodoo Chile Slight Return” (Jimi Hendrix),”Communication Breakdown” (Led Zeppelin) or “Bodies” (The Sex Pistols). And I sometimes used to crank things down by listening to all of “Echoes” (Pink Floyd). I don’t have that much free time these days. It’s become not so much a weekend thing anymore as it is a ‘driving around on my own’ thing.
If you overheard one fan talking to another after leaving a show by The Magpie Salute, what would you like to hear them say about the gig?
“That was absolutely amazing…I can’t wait to buy their new album!”
John Hogg photo by John Hayhurst
Full band photo by Shervin Lainez