Musical chemistry is a special, sometimes flammable rapport between two musicians. It’s a rare thing – highly sought, difficult to attain – and you know it when you share it. Rich Robinson and Marc Ford have it, and if you want to hear what it sounds like, check out their latest collaboration.
With a past that reaches back to The Black Crowes’ finest albums – think Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Amorica, and Three Snakes and One Charm – Robinson and Ford bring their guitar-centric chemistry to The Magpie Salute, a 10-piece group that intially featured the keyboard work of fellow former Crowe Eddie Harsch (who passed away in November of ’16) and draws inspiration from deep cuts, ensemble interplay, and the spirit of musical adventure.
You two work so well together and have made great music, but in the past there has been conflict. How have things been working out since your reunion?
Marc Ford: We’ve been able to accomplish a huge amount in a very short amount of time because of this natural thing we have. It’s flowing through the whole band. It’s Rich’s career of people that he’s played with, and now the whole band has got it. It’s incredible and a next-level thing.
What distinguishes Magpie Salute from Black Crowes?
Rich Robinson: It’s a combination of people new and old. Marc and Eddie came out and played a show my band did in Woodstock, and I was really excited about the idea of them coming to play; I wanted to hear Marc with my drummer, Joe Magistro, and with Eddie, and how the whole thing worked. Out of that idea the whole thing was born.
It was cool to bring all these people into something – new and old. Marc and I, and even singer Charity White to an extent, have a context. We were in a band together. Then you throw in me and Joe, and we’ve been playing together since 2003. We have a thing together. Then you bring in some new energy like guitarist Nico Bereciartua and some of the singers and keyboardist Matt Slocum, and it all really works so well. We’re just playing songs Marc and I wrote with some cover tunes.
It’s not The Black Crowes, but we’re honoring the things that Marc and I and Eddie accomplished as musicians in that great band – and the Crowes were a great band. Now, we’re having fun with these songs in a way that we’ve never had. It’s fun – lighter, in a sense. The music’s not lighter, but we’re just really enjoying it. But also really looking forward to making a record and going out and being our own thing.
“Everyone in this band is a good enough musician to know what they need to bring to the table.” – Rich Robinson
Marc, having led your own projects for a while, what’s it like being back in this type of musical fold?
MF: It’s just another piece of things I’ve gotten to do. It turns out that it’s a very important and very huge piece. I had forgotten about the physicality of playing the music – the posturing it takes; I hadn’t done it in so long. I had to remember how to hold the guitar that way. It all came back quickly, but I guess it surprised me how far away I got. Which is great, because now, coming back to all that stuff, it’s all kind of brand new and allows me to enter the song new. We’re not covering our old self. To me, they’re almost brand new songs because I disconnected so long ago.
Rich, what made you reach out to Marc?
RR: There’s a far deeper connection on a musical level because you’re speaking a different language. You’re dealing with raw emotions, and it’s far out to me. When the opportunity came up to do this show in Woodstock, I was like, “F**k it. I’m just going to call Marc.” He and I just had this thing that I’ve never had with another guitar player. The way that we play together is really special. It’s a rare thing. The same thing holds true for Eddie. There was a lot of sound in the Crowes and Eddie would find places to shine. I reached out to Marc first and really wanted him to come. He was like, “I’m there.” His flight was delayed and we were supposed to do a little rehearsal…
RR: He showed up the next day in the middle of our set. He just came onstage and it was great.
MF: The record sold me when I listened to it. It’s as if that nine-minutes of “Wiser Time” just tells the whole story musically in a sense. You can hear it. We’re meeting each other for the first time, literally, on the record. There was no rehearsal needed. It’s like we’ve come full circle.
John Hogg is a very talented singer. Where did you find him?
RR: John was in a band that opened for the Crowes in ’98 called Moke. They were signed to a subsidiary of Columbia. When we were on Columbia, our product manager told us about this band. We checked them out and thought they were great. I asked them to come on tour. They were kids – really young – but John and I hit it off immediately. I really liked what he did. He’s a great musician – plays guitar, drums, bass, and pretty much anything you throw in front of him. When the Crowes first split in 2001, I called John and started a band immediately. It was great. We had so much fun, and then the Crowes got back together. Things happened and that didn’t really work, but we always stayed in touch and were ready to get together at any moment to start working together again.
He’s under a lot of pressure… got a lot to deal with. He’s not trying to be Chris Robinson. He’s trying to honor the song. He’s singing the melodies. He naturally, like anyone, brings himself to the song. But he’s got by far the hardest gig because he’s got to learn melody, timing, and lyrics to 160 songs, which is how many we’re doing on this tour.
There are 10 people in this band. How do you find your sonic space on guitar?
MF: You keep trying over and over again (laughs). It’s physical. That’s what’s challenging to me. I become a better musician because I’m a better listener. I listen more, adapt, and provide what’s needed. I listen to the holes, what isn’t being done, and just be there. And sometimes you’ve got to pretend you’re a trumpet or something and get in the part.
I don’t get to do that stuff when I’m singing or leading a band. Now I’m more into the details, which is really fun. We have all these incredible musicians and we just weave through it, and it’s happening to the whole band. It’s really amazing.
Why so many people in the band?
RR: Because it’s more about inclusion than exclusion. I looked at it like, “I love these guys and I want to bring these other guys in that I love.” We have singers who are really cool and give us an element that could take us places we normally couldn’t go. It was literally more about the sound. When you have 10 people onstage working in a unit together and everyone’s doing their part, there’s something really powerful about it. It’s not unlike two drummers. There’s something so subtle, cool, and powerful about that.
MF: It’s a language.
RR: It is a language. Nico can pull out an acoustic guitar or mandolin or lap steel. When Marc takes a solo, Nico will switch and play a rhythm part that Marc covered on the record.
I also really like that Marc, John, and I sing. It gives the band a whole other layer to be able to dig into.
MF: Harmonically, as well as vocally.
“The most exciting part of this band is the possibilities. We’re trying to get through 160 tunes and we get to explore.” – Marc Ford
How do you decide what works best in terms of gear?
RR: Early on in the Crowes, Marc and I use to “coordinate,” where he’d play humbuckers and I’d play a Strat or a Tele. Innately, we always tended to go down that road. For this band, Marc plays his Asher guitars, which have their own sound and frequency, which is really cool. We also need to be flexible. We’re playing festivals on huge stages, and we’ll also play some smaller places. We bring out these really cool small amps for smaller places. If we need bigger oomph for a big stage, we’ll bring it out. I like having that flexibility and everyone in this band is a good enough musician to know what they need to bring to the table.
MF: Part of what you’re bringing to the part is the tone of the part as well as the sound of it. Sound, to me, takes on shapes. It could be slow or fast or fill a wide space. It’s all shapes and shades to me. That’s part of the part you’re creating – what kind of voice. The Asher guitars are really well-made. It’s a tool. If I had to, I could do it with just about anything, but Bill Asher takes care at every step – quality all the way through. It’s not your average sound. I’m using Satellite amplifiers, made in San Diego by Adam Grimm. They’re pretty much bullet-proof, straight-ahead dragster funny cars. There’s no extra business. It’s just pure muscle, with two knobs.
RR: I don’t have a main guitar, but it’s mostly one of my Gretsches, a 335, or a Tele. I have a White Falcon and a ’58 Streamliner that are really cool, a Black Falcon, and a ton of other guitars. Tonally, the generality of these guitars is my go-to. I have a 25-watt Reason amp, a ’50s tweed Deluxe, and a Vibrolux. They’re the same size and sit right next to each other. I run all three at the same time.
You also perform some interesting covers including War’s “War Drums” and songs by Pink Floyd and Bob Marley.
RR:I was putting together the set list and it was really just a show for my solo band. When Marc came out, I wanted to find songs that would be cool that we had in common or a connection. We were like, “Oh, I love Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Goin’ Down South.’ I would love to hear Eddie’s take on that.” “War Drums” was one of the songs where I was like, “Wouldn’t this be cool? I would love to hear Marc play on this one.” It was one that I’d done during my shows, but it’s such a cool message. I love the sort of militant discipline of that band. They were so disciplined. The guitar player would ride a part for a f**king 100 bars or something and never vary. And that rhythm section was phenomenal. We’d done “Gun” off of The Black-Man’s Burdon, which was kind of a challenge, but it was f**king cool. I was trying to come up with a broad stroke, dynamic of a song, that we could all play on and bring something to.
MF: The most exciting part of this band is the possibilities. We’re trying to get through 160 tunes and we get to explore.
RR: Getting through a 160 tunes requires stretching before we run (laughs). And once we’re well stretched, we get on the track and go.
MF: Right (laughs).
How did you decide which Black Crowes songs to cover for this project?
RR: I’d thought of “Wiser Time,” in particular. I always loved what Marc and I did. It was an example of no matter what was going on in the band or going on with us, when a song like that comes on you can hear the connection between us. And for Ed to come in there with that brilliant Fender Rhodes solo that no one could ever re-create… I was like, “This will be the one that will do it.”
Then I had this other song called “What Is Home” that was on another Black Crowes record, and again I thought, “I really want to hear Marc and Ed on this.” That’s really what it was. “Hey, we haven’t seen each other in a really long time. What would be the most fun thing to do in the most rewarding way.” That’s how I saw it.
MF: It’s like having old family friends get together and say, “Hey, remember when we use to kick the can around?” Immediately, we start playing, then we say, “Now what?” What we bring is a lot of love and loss. It requires some responsibility to know when you’ve been gifted something so special. As long as we keep our stuff together, the music can work. There’s a genuine sense of joy and celebration onstage.
RR: In January or February, we’re making a double studio record of all new material, then we’re going to tour all next year.
MF: I’ll be there doing the same thing (laughs)! One band is enough when you have a family. We’ll take it one thing at a time and see where we’re at.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.