When Captain Guitar swoops into view on stage, stars-and-stripes cape flapping to the groove, he whips up a tornado of voodoo magic. Here he comes now, darting from the shadows like a Gotham rock vigilante, delivering BLAM! BIFF! KER-POW! licks to Terry Reid’s Dean faster than a speeding plectrum. And then, with a flick of his forelock, he disappears as mysteriously as he came. Who was that caped bluesader?
“Any time I get the cape out in public it’s a good day,” says Captain Guitar, backstage in his everyday human alter-ego disguise as Marc Ford of The Magpie Salute. “A friend from Bristol had it made on the Holy Ghost [his 2014 album] tour and I don’t get the chance to wear it, so I thought bringing it back to London for my birthday would be good.”
It’s fitting that various quarters of The Magpie Salute have superhero aliases. They are, after all, a blockbuster reboot; the Black Crowe Rises. Pieced together by Black Crowes guitarist and founder member Rich Robinson last October, they’re a loose-fit collective of old Crowes members, Robinson’s solo band, backing singers and vocalist John Hogg, who Rich had previously worked with in Hookah Brown during The Crowes’ mid-00s hiatus. Over their handful of sold-out dates in New York and London thus far – tonight is only their sixth ever show – the old longtime fans have flocked to see their ever-shifting two-hour sets of Crowes tunes, solo songs and classic blues-rock covers.
“We’re trying sets, seeing what works and seeing what doesn’t,” says a grinning Robinson, wearing a smart, modern southern gent suit and lounging across a red leatherette sofa backstage, considering what The Magpie Salute bring to the songs they switch up every night. “Just a love,” he says. “We choose covers based on: ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool to do that song?’ Last night we did a Small Faces song, Rollin’ Over. John is amazing on it. We’re going to do Every Picture Tells A Story tonight. Its about doing songs we’ve always wanted to play.”
The songs have (largely) remained the same, but Robinson is revelling in the rejuvenating freedoms of The Magpie Salute. Throughout the Black Crowes’ 26 years and 30 million album sales, they always seemed trapped in a Stones tour of Alabama in ’72; all snow-white pimp suits, hippie ponchos, feather boas and wide-brimmed headwear. They were a band you’d imagine toured in a perpetual joss-stick haze of fine bourbons, on-stage carpets, scented scarves draped over lamps and a coterie of furry top-hat roadies. This centred on Crowes singer Chris Robinson’s trademark Twiglet Keef aesthetic, though, and today his brother Rich seems relieved to be shaking off the past’s psychedelic paisley trousers and Mayan ceremonial blouses.
“It’s much more pleasant,” Rich says of touring without Chris. “You know, you’re born into a relationship and it’s close sometimes and then way far away. The longer we did this, the further away it got, and it never got close again. Towards the end it was difficult to tour with the Crowes, because one of the guys really didn’t want to be there, and made everyone else in that band not really want to be there either because it was so negative. Towards the end it was almost like having contempt for the music and no respect. Coming into this, we are really making a conscious effort to not go down those trappings of negativity on tour. Touring is hard. It’s hard enough in your twenties, let alone when you’re in your forties and fifties. There are a lot of traps that can pull you back into those bad ways, so we just made a promise to each and everyone of us to just not let each other go down that road.”
What caused the Black Crowes’ negativity? “Chris made a demand in 2014 for all of the money, basically. He said he wasn’t going to tour unless he made the huge lion’s share of the money. He wanted to take all of our drummer’s percentage and wanted some of mine. I thought it was absurd; twenty years in, that isn’t when you do that. He felt that that was what his contribution was worth, and we didn’t. So I said no.”
With the Crowes’ wings clipped early in 2015, Rich switched focus to his solo career, touring Flux, his fourth album, throughout 2016 until he felt ready to return to a favourite old practice – recording a full album over three nights in front of a live studio audience of 100, with all the pressure and excitement that entails. He found a great new studio near Woodstock (where he’d recorded the Woodstock Sessions album in the same manner in 2014), now he just needed a band. Preferably one that came pre-telepathic.
“I called Marc [a Black Crowes member in the mid-90s] to see if he wanted to come do it,” Rich says. “To be able to play with someone that you have such a strong musical connection with is a gift. You don’t get to play with many people like that. He was like, ‘Man, I’d love to.’ Aand that was really cool, so I called Eddie [Harsch, former Crowes keyboard player]. I had always kept in touch with Ed. He and I were close. Musically I loved him, and as a person. And Eddie was like, ‘Man I’m coming!’.”
Another former Crowe, bassist Sven Pipien, joined them for the recordings for what became the Magpie Salute’s self-titled debut.
“We did some of the Crowes songs and covers, and Marc came and played on some of mine,” Rich recalls fondly. “It turned out to be great. There were seventy songs for the record, we had to narrow them down. We did three shows, two sets per night. Every night was a twenty-song set and you never repeat it. A good portion of those songs were my solo songs, but when I bought Marc and Ed in we decided to do some Crowes songs and covers. I was trying to find songs that would represent this band, and so I chose a broad array of what we did. That was a three-day weekend, and then I left and went off to finish my tour. But I thought it was so much fun I wanted to know how we could keep doing that.”
It must’ve been Captain Guitar’s secret powers kicking in. Which are?
Ford laughs. “They’re secret.”
Hardly. During The Magpie Salute’s sprawling two-hour-plus free-for-all tonight in this venue beneath the Chelsea FC stadium, Captain Guitar’s powers are sharply evident. From the moment the band – expanded to a boho 10-piece live - take red wines and bottled beers on stage, preparing for the long haul, and open with the Crowes’ Black Moon Creeping, his solos wind and coil like pythons, setting off Robinson’s strident southern rock slashes. When Ford steps up to sing his own songs, he brings a dusky nightcrawler feel to Smoke Signals and Devil’s In The Details, summoning reflective, melancholy melodies that recall lonesome cityscapes and early hours full of bad whiskys and recriminations. Out on the fringe of the stage, he somehow encapsulates The Magpie Salute.
After all, they have the air of a raggle-taggle stadium bar band. With the look of Damian Marley after an extremely lost weekend, John Hogg steps up to the mic with a devil’s flair on Stonesy gospel blues struts such as By Your Side and Comin’ Home, and proves to be a very versatile centrepiece. His voice flits between steamy Mississippi bluesman (on the Allman Brothers’ Stand Back), reggae trill (Bob Marley’s Lively Up Yourself) and raging Rod (a stampeding Every Picture Tells A Story) without breaking a sweat. “Every time he comes in for rehearsal, we have a different singer,” Robinson jokes.
As the band swoop from the storming speedway blues of Robinson’s Upstairs Land to an intensely passionate Cursed Diamond, thankfully reining in the indulgent solos and sprawling jams, it’s Robinson who keeps this bronco from bucking out of control. A settling central hub, he guides the set – unlike the album it’s more Crowes songs than covers - through hip-twisting rockers like Horsehead, Allmans-style summer pop Shipwreck and Floydish funeral fire atmospherics on Ballad In Urgency. He dishes out solos as consuming as quicksand, leads a ballsed-up rendition of Happy Birthday for Ford – “There’s nothing quite as unsettling as two different groups of people singing Happy Birthday in two different keys,” he winces – and takes lead vocals on a smattering of his own songs, casually at ease with his unfettered new lease of life. And that’s the real beauty of The Magpie Salute – they’re a band unshackled from the worshipful clichés of rock history, revelling in the music they love rather than paying second-hand homage to the lilac-tinted eras and the rock’n’roll immortals that made it.
Just when Captain Guitar vanishes after his one-song appearance, and at the two-hour mark the set starts to drag, Robinson announces that they’ll play straight through the encore “because some of us might not come back”. During the finale, gutter-sniffing ballad Fathers gives way to sludge behemoth Twice As Hard and P.25 London, in which Robert Plant is the walrus. “This is the last bastion of what’s real,” Robinson declares before an anthemic final Conspiracy. “When we fuck up, we really fuck up.”
We corner him again backstage. So, did you fuck up?
“There’s always fuck-ups,” he says, grinning. “But to me that justifies it, it means you’re real. If you counter it with great moments throughout the night then it equals out. To me its creepy to watch a band, especially in the modern times with computers, and everyone’s up there playing passionless music. That’s the thing about rock’n’roll music: it was always appealing because it could go either way. You could see the Stones and some nights they might suck, and then one song would come up and be the most brilliant thing you have ever seen.”
In the dressing room, bohemian backing singers swill wine, questionable roll-ups are lit and a babble of accents criss-cross the room: London, Argentina, California, Denmark. Where you might expect a swank southern clique, The Magpie Salute are an international family still finding its feet only six gigs in, everyone sounding out their roles, no group traits or traditions yet in place. There’s also, to some degree, a lingering loss hanging over the room. After recording the album, Eddie Harsch died unexpectedly, aged 59, last November. Did that almost scupper the project?
“That was absolutely unexpected,” Rich says. “We put the shows on sale, we were working on getting him situated to come in and out of the States without hassle, getting him a visa – he was Canadian. We were working and talking with him every day and he couldn’t wait. Then one day you’d talk to him, and the next he was in a coma for a week, and then he passed. It was a really shitty shock of a thing. We were just getting started. Those shows in Woodstock when Ed came and was playing, he was so happy. I haven’t seen Ed that content in a long time. Because of that energy, how he felt about the music and everything he was saying, it would have really sucked to end it. This is what Ed wanted to do and what he wanted us to do. He’d been waiting around for this for a long time.”
So The Magpie Salute are up and running. Rich has already started writing a double album of new songs he hopes to release in 2018, but he’ll spend 2017 making the Salute as sharp as hell. “What I can’t wait for is being on tour for a month or two and what this band will be capable of,” he says.