Is rock dead? A conversation with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes

Reigniting his enthusiasm for classic rock, Eduardo Alonso travels to Oslo to talk to Rich Robinson about the Black Crowes and his new band The Magpie Salute.

Reigniting his enthusiasm for classic rock, Eduardo Alonso travels to Oslo to talk to Rich Robinson about the Black Crowes and his new band The Magpie Salute.

Matthew Sterling

Think of a day between July 1996 and August 1997. Any day. Now, say that day to me and I can point out where rock band The Black Crowes lived and played. Moreover, I can share the recording of the show with you.

For example, let’s take the 20th February 1997. On that day, The Black Crowes were in the middle of a European tour – a cold winter Thursday, the band played at the Ancienne Belgique, the historic concert hall in Brussels. The show that started with a 13-minute version of the group’s signature song ‘Wiser Time’ and included a rocking version of The Byrds’ ‘One Hundred Years from Now’. And, in between those songs, the band jammed, getting lost in a spaced-out instrumental based on their unreleased track ‘Spider In The Sugar Bowl Blues’. It was a fabulous show.

For the most part of the last two decades I’ve been obsessed with this brief period in the history of this particular rock band. A band that linked 1970s rock classicism with the alternative rock of the nineties. Started by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson when they were barely in their twenties, The Black Crowes initiated their nineties by selling over five million copies of their debut full-length album, which includes hits like ‘Jealous Again’ and a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘Hard to Handle’. Seven years later, the band only moved 300,000 copies of their fourth album before staging a dubious “back to the roots” period, followed by a short tour as Jimmy Page’s live band to end the decade. After a brief hiatus, the Crowes kept touring for the next ten years until brothers Chris and Rich Robinson would not be able of even speaking to one another, breaking up the band for good in 2015.

For the most part of the last two decades I’ve been obsessed with this brief period in the history of this particular rock band

Those lines are just a snapshot of the official band narrative. The Black Crowes story presents one of the most memorable Behind the Music episodes. The narrative is myth-building: fist fights between brothers, a good amount of recreational drugs, blow Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses off stage at the 1992 Video Music Awards, and let’s not forget the uncontrolled debauchery while recording a million-dollar album that would ship-to-shops with a cover that displayed a woman’s crotch wearing a United States flag thong with pubic hair sticking out. And then firing band members following accusations of being unable to stand and play the right songs on stage. All the while recording a series of albums that rank among the finest classic rock records of the last 25 years, and thus becoming the last great rock and roll band.

For us who were born too late for the seventies, The Black Crowes became The Rolling Stones of our generation. Self-destructive and self-indulgent, they fully embraced the classic rock mythology and built their own narrative upon it.  

Many hardcore Black Crowes fans find the 1996/97 period to be the most fascinating. Following the excesses of their third album, Amorica, the band got weirder even by their own standards. Psychedelic textures and long, mushrooms-fueled jams substitute their early glittering rock and roll. As a teenager, I could only ask where to buy the ticket to jump onto their bus?

Psychedelic textures and long, mushrooms-fueled jams substitute their early glittering rock and roll. As a teenager, I could only ask where to buy the ticket to jump onto their bus?

Collecting bootlegs and trading shows with equally obsessed fans was the gateway into those frenetic months in the Crowes’ history. In barely twelve months, the band played well over 100 shows with the most unexpected setlists. Hits were ignored and rare covers were busted out, making each show unique and a must-have for collectors. If the Crowes have first drawn comparisons with The Rolling Stones, in 1996 and 97, they were taking a page out of the Grateful Dead playbook.

At the end of the 1997 summer tour, the band imploded. Band members were fired and beards were shaven. Just a year later, in 1998, The Black Crowes would be very different.

20 years later… The Magpie Salute

Today I’m in Oslo. The city is preparing to host a new edition of the Øya Festival. Construction is ongoing next to the Edvard Munch museum in the east side of the city. Workers in yellow and orange vests build the stages and a mile-long line of food stands. Pounding and hammering. That’s their very own setlist. I wonder how much a pint will cost at the festival.

In every street, there are posters announcing the line-up. There are not many rock bands on the bill. Or at least, classic rock bands. Øya Festival is indie and hip hop friendly. Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, Lykke Li, Arctic Monkeys, Chelsea Wolfe. Over 60,000 music lovers want to see these bands. This is Oslo, but it could be anywhere. The gentrification of pop music is everywhere.

The gentrification of pop music is everywhere

I’m not here for the festival. Instead, I’m heading to a pub to see a rock show. The Black Crowes founder Rich Robinson has a new band called The Magpie Salute, and they’re putting out a new album this month. With The Black Crowes gone, I’ve decided to chase the Robinson brothers solo projects whenever I have the chance.   

As much as I love this music, this time I cannot avoid wondering if the trip will be worth it. Is there a point in seeing rock bands past their prime? After many years traveling overseas to see rock shows, this trip to Oslo begs the rock is dead question. Any rock fan faces this question sooner or later, the same way any rock fan has a Led Zeppelin-is-the-most-important-and-awesome-band-ever phase. For me it lasted three years, and around 5,000 listens of ‘Immigrant Song’, between the ages of 17 and 20.

Don McLean was the first one to publicly address the rock is dead problem and dated the day music died to the 3rd February 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash. Similarly, long time rock fans will at some point feel nostalgic of the moments that music used to make them smile and enter their rock is dead period. Perhaps after a confusing afro-beat phase, most of these fans will headbang again to Black Sabbath Vol. 4. Even The Edge couldn’t help but return to rock guitars after Zooropa.

Similarly, long time rock fans will at some point feel nostalgic of the moments that music used to make them smile and enter their rock is dead period. Perhaps after a confusing afro-beat phase, most of these fans will headbang again to Black Sabbath Vol. 4

While classic rock will always live in the minds and hearts of fans, the death of rock has never felt more real as most rock stars are either retiring or knocking on heaven’s door. Not only are the biggest rock stars disappearing, the music itself feels less important. Beyond Instagram #sleeveface posts – albums – the preferred medium for classic rock, have lost their relevance. Plus the ceiling of rock acts seem to be early evening slots at major festivals. You only need to take a look at the recent Aerosmith promo photos to realize the state of classic rock might not be very healthy.

My less-than-positive outlook on the state of rock did not deter my enthusiasm for seeing The Magpie Salute. As soon as I learned about the show in Oslo, I bought the tickets, booked the flights and jumped at the opportunity of interviewing Rich Robinson. Perhaps a chat with the man who wrote ‘Remedy’ would restore my faith in rock?

The Magpie Salute reunites Rich Robinson with Marc Ford, the lead guitar player during The Black Crowes’ golden years. He played in The Black Crowes between 1992 and 1997, and again during the 2005-2006 reunion. In 1997 he was fired around accusations that his drug problem hindered his live performance. A decade later, he quit the band because life on the road led him into a downward spiral. Not long after this Marc nearly overdosed in front of the TV. Still, his time in the band was gold and he is regarded as the best guitar player to ever be in the Crowes.

That’s the past, though. In 2016, Marc – now sober – joined Rich Robinson to form The Magpie Salute. For the most part of 2017, The Magpie Salute toured across the US and Europe, celebrating the music of the Black Crowes. With London’s John Hogg taking vocal duties and  drawing from a 200 plus song repertoire, including Crowes songs, covers and songs from Marc’s and Rich’s solo career. Hogg’s spot is the toughest. Subbing for the lead singer is a nearly impossible task, particularly if the original vocalist is still alive and having an active touring life. But Chris Robinson does not want to be part of this, and Rich Robinson settles the question quick enough: “We’re not the Crowes and there’s no new singer. John is my singer, the singer in my band.”

Beyond the Crowes

The show in Oslo is at a very small pub. It will be acoustic, just Rich, Marc and Hogg on a tiny stage. They’re promoting the release of High Water I, the band’s studio debut which will come out a few days after this show. The new album is a statement that the band is looking ahead and not celebrating the past any more. “We’re shying away from the Crowes”, explains Robinson. “I don’t want the constant comparisons. I wrote that music and it means a lot to me. But that was then and this is now. This record is all about this band. And this is where we want to be.”

Slightly inspired by a traditional English pub, this bar is really small. Just a square room with dark brown furniture. I sit on a stool at a table near the stage and observe the audience come in. No more than 300 tickets have been sold, but the bar is full minutes before the show. As expected, it’s the usual classic rock audience: a bunch of forty-something men sporting bands t-shirts: Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Cheap Trick. Myself, I’m wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m not Bleeding), it says. Besides girlfriends and wives, no other women seem to be in the audience. Four or five at most. Such gender imbalance makes classic rock feel very uncool in 2018.

Besides girlfriends and wives, no other women seem to be in the audience. Four or five at most. Such gender imbalance makes classic rock feel very uncool in 2018

I spoke to Rich Robinson a few hours before the show at a cafe in Oslo’s commercial district, not far from the hotel where the band are staying. That was a trendy place. Pricey, as everything is in this city is. Slow-paced Sunday morning jazz played in the background while Rich asked the waiter for a taster of a local craft beer. For a moment, I entertained the idea of just talking beer, and avoid the tiresome narrative. I’m sure he likes a good ale. Plus, in the last five years craft beers feel more culturally relevant than popular rock music.

Let’s talk music instead

In any interview with Rich Robinson it is difficult to avoid questions about his non-existent relationship with his older brother and the other half of The Black Crowes, Chris Robinson. They haven’t been on speaking terms for years. I tried hard not to ask. After all, Rich has already said he “does not have a brother”, even though he is truly proud of the music they made together and of Chris’s contributions as a lyricist. It’s incomprehensible that both created such a beautiful body of work, but ended up totally estranged from one another.

Perhaps the answer is just the taxing lifestyle of the touring musician. “My hands burn with the scars of past lives”, sings Rich in ‘What is Home?’, one of his last compositions for The Black Crowes, a song he keeps singing with The Magpie Salute. At 49, Rich Robinson is still young for today’s rock average. Those scars of past lives tell otherwise. Before he was 20, Rich was a multi-platinum selling artist, and since then, he averaged nearly 100 shows a year. He may not have the long, blond curls of his early twenties, but still looks youthful. In a way, he can’t shake his appearance that he is the younger brother.

Perfect strangers

Besides his brother, Marc Ford is probably the most important musical relationship for Rich Robinson. Or at least, it’s the one the public remembers the most. From the moment Marc Ford joined The Crowes, the interplay between the two guitarists became one of the most distinct and attractive characteristics of the band’s sound. Marc and Rich complemented each other like few other rock guitarists ever did. Rich provided monster riffs and Marc would find his way around the song structure until both would jam simultaneously like rivers flowing down the mountain.

That unrivaled chemistry is ever present at those 1996/97 shows I so dearly cherish. As I write these lines, I’m listening to ‘Middle Eastern Jam’, a short improvisation The Black Crowes played in Prague in 1997. The interplay between Marc and Rich is astonishing. One drives the jam with dark riffs, while the other fills the air with soulful guitar. It’s the mercurial quality of music.

Both met and play together for the first time when Marc’s band at the time, Burning Tree, opened for The Black Crowes in 1990. “We instantly hit it off, so whenever there was a chance we would play a song or two together.” When it came to record The Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, it was only natural that Marc would join the Crowes. “Nobody in the band had heard the songs. Chris and I wrote pretty much the whole album over one weekend. Marc came in and it just worked. It’s one of those things I can’t put my finger on. To me, music is like a hub and Marc just entered that hub. There’s this way that he and I weave in and out without explanation.”

Despite the strong musical connection, Marc and Rich hardly got to know each other in the nineties. The band was divided into two camps and Marc belonged to opposite sides. Without bitterness, Rich explains such troubled times: “In the Crowes, like in every group of people, there was a particular dynamic, and in the Crowes there was that extra element of family. But that dynamic wasn’t that healthy, and it got worse over the years”. Such dynamics built a wall between Rich and Marc. On stage, there might have faced each other, but off stage, they were almost strangers. “There was kind of a block between whoever played that [guitar] role in the band and me. There was that wall. It was partly my fault and partly Chris’s fault. It was the way it is. So Marc and I never really got to know one another that well. Apart from musically.”

In the Crowes, like in every group of people, there was a particular dynamic, and in the Crowes there was that extra element of family. But that dynamic wasn’t that healthy, and it got worse over the years

Those years in the band might not have been the happiest times, but the way Rich speaks, it is clear he has come to terms with however the Crowes career went and the decisions that were made. He speaks calmly, without regret. Such calmness and acceptance is what made a band like The Magpie Salute.

After the two runs of Marc Ford in the Crowes, much was said in the band. It must have taken a lot of courage to reconnect. “It’s time to leave all those things behind. That’s how I saw and I think that’s how Marc saw it too. In Marc’s situation being in the Crowes was unhealthy, for anyone it would be unhealthy. When he came back in 2005, it was the same problem. So the second time he left, I wasn’t bummed. I just understood.”

In rock and roll music, there are not many second chances. A third one is nearly impossible, and therefore, it was an unlikely surprise when Marc and Rich announced they were forming a band together. This new musical collaboration led to a stronger personal experience, as Rich says: “When I reached out to him in 2016. I think he was at the same place I was – in the sense that we were looking at what a gift it is to be able to play music with someone you have a strong connection with. That doesn’t happen that often. When I called, he was instantly, I’ll be there. I feel he was in the same place. We always had the musical relationship, but now we got to open this other element and get to know each other.”

I feel he was in the same place. We always had the musical relationship, but now we got to open this other element and get to know each other

Can you see

Halfway through my conversation with Rich, I understand why I came to Oslo to see this band. He gives me the answer I’m looking for in the form of an unexpected rant on the dehumanization of modern society. “The world is in need of inspiration, in need of something that is real, authentic and human”, he starts. “The lines between the virtual world and the world we’re living are blurring. The virtual world is winning. People are watching their phones and playing on their iPads, choosing to leave the world. Perception of the world has shifted. With fake news and such, truth and facts are blurring. Now more than ever humans kind of need to show us that there’s something else out there. Instead of hearing someone telling them what they should like”.

The lines between the virtual world and the world we’re living are blurring. The virtual world is winning

That inspiration is what rock and roll music can provide. Rich mentions some of his heroes, from Bob Dylan to Hank Williams, as examples of how individuality can take us to inspiration, as in opposition to music packaged and marketed to sound the same “It’s the uniqueness of the individual and the uniqueness of the sound. That’s what’s interesting to me musically”.

This is why rock music matters. Echoing what Rich says, I also have a huge reverence for rock and roll because it always had a spirit of being rebellious and promoting individuality. And the search for uniqueness is well embodied in Rich’s career: “We did the Crowes – we did it and I have no regrets. This band, with three songwriters, is the way we’re trying and it works great.”

Is this a naive thought? Absolutely. But it is also what makes humans well… human.

With soaring guitars and a good amount of guitar riffs, several songs on the first Magpie Salute album deal with this idea. ‘Can You See’ invites us to put our phones away and seek for human contact; ‘Color Blind’ talks of the hard time of being of a different race and ‘Mary The Gypsy’ insists it’s time to pull the cord. It’s a solid album that proves that for Rich Robinson there’s life beyond the Crowes, while keeping its legacy alive.

The encore in Oslo ends with a version of the Crowes signature song ‘Wiser Time’. It’s the first time I see Marc and Rich play this song together since 2006 when I attended an incredible three night run at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. I realized some of the friends I saw at those shows have passed. Others are gone. I’m different too. ‘Wiser Time’  glorifies life on the road, the need of going out and exploring the world and I understand I’ll keep going to rock shows. And if you ask me why, I can only reply with a verse from the song: Funny but I bet you never left home.

The Magpie Salute online

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