The Magpie Salute play layer upon layer of classic rock, Rich Robinson and birthday boy Marc Ford are back together in fine form as they stun a London audience with a two hour setlist of great covers and Black Crowes songs.
For many the Black Crowes are just that 90’s American band that did an Otis Redding cover of ‘Hard to Handle’ and a southern rock classic ballad ‘She Talks to Angels’, their huge album ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ remains as one of the greatest debut albums from any band. Yet to only really know a handful of their early tunes is barely scratching the surface of the phenomenal back catalogue of album tracks, cover tunes, extended jam sessions, individual solo stuff and endless available live recordings. Their changing setlist mentality meant that followers of the band came from far and wide to witness their shows, and they stayed for the 4 or 5 night run at a particular venue – because they know every night is a different set, and you just can’t miss anything.
For over 20 years The Black Crowes were MY band, they wrote the soundtrack to my life from my 20s to my 40s, I followed them all over the UK (and a couple of memorable trips to Amsterdam) and saw around 100 shows until the sad occasion came when they decided to go on hiatus, which was then followed by some unsavoury comments between the two brothers and made the hiatus more like a terminal illness. The deepening wound between Rich and Chris Robinson is cut to the bone and festering, and although there’s always a chance that money may patch things over, I don’t think we’ll see a full reunion anytime soon. When the planned Black Crowes 25th anniversary tour was never arranged, Rich decided to gather a few of the past Crowes members to create ‘The Magpie Salute’. A magpie is a member of the crow family and whilst the PR said it was all about an English saying about saluting a magpie for good luck, there is a part of me that thinks it’s really Rich flicking two V’s to Chris and saying “You know what….I can do this without you!”.
The biggest coup of the gathering of players was to recruit long-time fans favourite Marc Ford into the fold, Ford played on some of the key albums starting with ‘Southern Harmony’ and although he had several patchy periods in his life, the guitar dueling between Marc Ford and Rich Robinson was something to cherish and witness live. Ford’s solo on ‘Sometimes Salvation’ is still blistering to this day and to see him all cleaned up, slim, fresh faced and yet still able to conjure up that solo from a dark place, sends your internal emotional needles all flickering. Tonight, he is the birthday boy (at 51) and later in the set he will wear a cape and we will unsuccessfully try to sing happy birthday in unison to him.
There’s no support act and we expect a circa 20 song setlist, with no repeats from last night’s show (at the same venue), and that is duly delivered – see what I mean about not wanting to miss anything!
Under the Bridge is a great little venue, and weirdly it is literally under Stamford Bridge, Chelsea FC ground, but with a wide stage and some good raised vantage points around the sides, it means that everyone can get a decent view of the action. There are 10 musicians, including 3 backing singers, not a lot of depth to the stage means they are spread right across the front, and so there’s little opportunity for the band to move around. Not that it matters, even when Marc Ford decides to do a little jump in the air, he breaks his guitar strap on landing and must continue playing whilst squatting on the floor – so that’s enough of that, a few little side steps will have to do from now on.
Kicking off with ‘Black Moon Creeping’ a staple Crowes live track they are LOUD, this is a rock show of many layers and levels but when you have 3 guitars in full flow (not counting Sven Pipien on Bass) expect some noise. Backing singers include Charity White whose soulful wail is cashed in very early in the set, but it is so key to the ending of that song.
John Hogg (main vocalist) obviously has some big shoes to fill, he has lyric sheets taped to every space near his mic and frequently needs them. Expecting him to replicate a Chris Robinson sound is wrong, and you must accept that, but you should also appreciate his talent and Rich is very quick to acknowledge during the show, telling everyone “It’s like we have a new singer every show – he can sing a Terry Reid song and then Bob Marley”. That’s exactly what they do by playing ‘Dean’ followed by a stunning reggae cover of Marley’s ‘Lively up yourself’ Hogg with his short dreadlocks adapting to that style with ease, making complete sense in a strange world where a band can move from one genre to another.
The choice of cover versions has always been a major part of a Crowes setlist and as this band doesn’t have any original material released yet, it’s open season for selections. As well as the aforementioned Reid and Marley, we get Faces, Allmans, and Delaney&Bonnie tonight. Perhaps some of those choices were a little more affiliated to a Southern Classic Rock style, and with Marc Ford in your band on his birthday it’s no surprise that he gets to play a few of his solo tracks too. In fact, he starts one a little too early in the set, cranking out the guitar opener of ‘Devils in the Details’ before he realises he’s jumping ahead 1 song in the set and Rich needs to play ‘The Upstairs Land’ first.
One key member missing tonight is Eddie Harsch who sadly died before they could play their 1st run of shows in New York in January this year, but Matt Slocum faithfully replicates the ending to ‘Ballad in Urgency’ with a trademark Harsch piano piece which neatly transcends into ‘Wiser Time’. I’m sure everyone in that room tonight when Matt played that short piece were thinking of Eddie.
With a back catalogue of Black Crowes, Rich Robinson & Marc Ford solo records they can shift the setlist around at will, great to see all guitar players getting a chance to express themselves, plenty of extended jams with a sublime ‘Wiser Time’ and a solo trade between everyone on stage. At times the lesser known player in the room Nico Bereciartua really steps into the spotlight with some impressive slide guitar and even recovers Marc Ford’s slider after he dropped it, managing to pick it up and popping it on Ford’s finger whilst continuing to play. It’s a team effort and whilst they have a huge pedigree they haven’t rehearsed together or played live as a band for that long, but there is such clear chemistry there, and more importantly lots of laughs and smiles on stage which in the latter Black Crowes shows had all but disappeared. Frequently Rich gives everyone the ‘we are finishing’ nod, but then exactly how they finish a song can be misjudged, ending in band hysterics more akin to a new band starting out.
A deep cut and long lost Crowes track ‘Feathers’ is played tonight and the Robinson/Ford combo bursts with delicious dark soloing against a slow beat and bass riff, you follow that with a crowd-pleasing rocker ‘Twice as Hard’ and then that with a funky ‘P25 London’. Three songs showcasing the layers within layers of this band and Rich Robinson having introduced all the band including Marc ’Fucking’ Ford (which has now become his apparent adopted middle name), apologises for the state of world affairs and Trump, and hoped that we all leave tonight and tell our friends about the great time we had tonight, and then they will come back sometime to do it all again.
So this is my plea to you all – This band are an amazing experience live, but to have that experience, you need to come to a show rather than reading about it afterwards, no reviewer or videographer can truly put into words, or show the power that great live music can have on your overall well-being. So next time……you know what to do!
Black Moon Creeping
By Your Side
I Know You
Every Picture Tells a Story
Ballad in Urgency
Devils in the Details