The Magpie Salute establishes its own roots on High Water I
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It was immediate enough last year. On the first song on The Magpie Salute, the live debut by a band emerging from the ashes of the Black Crowes, a sound emerged above a chunky twin-guitar attack that sounded, literally and figuratively, like a new voice.
That was John Hogg’s voice, and just as he added the finishing touch to that informal session and helped a new band emerge, it’s his presence that helps High Water I feel like its own living, breathing organism. This isn’t some side project by guitarist Rich Robinson or Marc Ford, even while Robinson’s trademark riffs and Ford’s creative leads shine so brightly. This is a new band trying to create new music that kept the spirit of that original band without the negativity or drama that eventually brought it down. And the results are fantastic.
There’s no shortage of moments and pieces open to break down, analyze and discover new textures on repeated listens. “For the Wind” could stand as the album’s centerpiece, a blend of acoustic and electric colors, meshing together with Led Zeppelin’s light-and-shade approach, but serving all along as a calling card for everything that defines this band. Within its five-minute run time are the guitars of Robinson and Ford interweaving, with Hogg’s distinct vocal approach sitting perfectly atop the music, along with just the right blend in the backing vocals, recalling that Band-like vocal balance that Robinson always seems to be chasing.
And though the album was culled from more than two dozen completed tracks recorded earlier this year in Nashville (High Water II is due sometime early in 2019), the completed piece feels perfectly weighted and paced. There’s an opening riff-heavy blast on “Mary the Gypsy” that’s quickly complemented by the droning, open chords of “High Water,” a track that moves from percussive chords into a kind of sublime electric space. Those acoustic textures are revisited routinely, like on “Hand in Hand,” which sounds like a cousin to the kind of ragtime sidetrips the Faces used to take. And then the volume cranks back up on “Take it All,” with its slide riffs oozing up and down the tune.
For sure, this is a guitar album, but there’s a clear focus on the songs that keep this from just being a 45-minute in blues scale exercises. Keyboardist Matt Slocum is there to add texture to just about everything, and at points the songs sound as if there was some conscious restraint in their execution. The closing “Open Up” clocks in at just over three minutes, but sounds built for full flight come showtime — there are more than enough opportunities to set off on a 10-minute excursion, but instead the focus goes back to the song. There will be time for those exercises later.
And making all those songs work in a way apart from Robinson’s or Ford’s recent solo material is Hogg. He has charisma and the range of a classic soul singer, applied to a rock and roll context. He offers harmony vocals whenever he’s not on lead, as on Ford’s “Walk on Water.” Add in a unique perspective and a clear voice, and he emerges as an incredible frontman who likely deserved this kind of attention long ago. And beyond your requisite rock-and-roll wailing, he takes the time to deliver part of his own story on the autobiographical “Color Blind.” He has a platform now, and he’s making the most of it.
There’s a chance all this requires context. This is the first release of new material featuring both Robinson and Ford since the Black Crowes’ Three Snakes and One Charm in 1996, and hearing their guitars together on a new release feels like a visit from an old friend. There’s even a moment in the breakdown of “Can You See” that seems to specifically recall the lengthy jams the two would embark on in concert out of the Crowes’ “Nonfiction.” There’s no denying they have a style and approach that remains distinct.
But this album should transcend the need for prerequisite nostalgia. This is a great album by a rock band that is well on its way to becoming great. Tacked onto those distinct guitars is a singer who himself has such a distinguishing presence — he didn’t win his way on board via a contest, he’s a unique talent with a point-of-view and the soul to translate all of it. And the positivity and motivation they all bring to the music is infectious.
So here it is. After last year’s somewhat informal introduction, the Magpie Salute have planted some declarative roots in their first studio album. And there’s more to come still.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com