With today’s musical landscape littered with lip-synching pop starlets and instrument-free DJs it’s easy to forget just how powerful a great live rock band can be when it’s firing on all cylinders. I was quickly reminded of this fact at The Magpie Salute’s show Friday, Nov. 17, at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s Music Box Theater.
For the unfamiliar, The Magpie Salute is a newly-formed group that has risen from the ashes of The (sadly defunct) Black Crowes. Containing three ex-Crowes (guitarists Rich Robinson and Marc Ford as well as bassist Sven Pippien) musically speaking, their sound is all but identical to the band from which they descend. Of course the glaring absence being that of Chris Robinson, the magnetic former frontman and lead singer of the Black Crowes whose constant battles with his younger brother led to the demise of that band.
In his place is ex-Moke frontman John Hogg, who is a fine singer in his own right, yet lacks the vocal power, soulful screech and onstage charisma that Chris Robinson brought to the table. But why should that matter? This isn’t The Black Crowes, it’s The Magpie Salute. They are a totally different band … right? Well, sorta.
While the name may have changed, for now, Hogg’s job requires delving into an unnatural amount of Crowes material each night, to which he will be automatically compared to Chris by everyone in attendance. And in Hogg’s defense, stepping into the shoes of a popular lead singer is often a losing battle, no matter how good you are. Just ask Gary Cherone.
We’re still scratching our heads as to why Thanksgiving Eve is such a big party night. Perha…
Despite the elder Robinson not being present, the show was well worth the price of admission. For more than two hours the band weaved their way through a setlist that leaned heavily on Black Crowes material as well as some solo tracks from Ford and Robinson. Bursting with rock ‘n’ roll fury right out of the gates, they launched into “Twice as Hard” (the lead track off the Black Crowes debut album, 1990’s “Shake Your Money Maker”) and followed it up with two more Crowes tracks, “By Your Side” (off the 1999 album of the same name) as well as the rather obscure “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)” (from 2009’s “Before the Frost…Until the Freeze”) which was only slightly edged out by “Good Morning Captain” as my pick for best track of the night.
For any Crowes fan who has spent the better part of the last four years wondering if they were ever going to be able to hear these songs performed live again, the evening was a slam dunk. The three-pronged guitar attack took center stage, with each player skillfully intersecting one another with lead and rhythm lines while masterfully staying out of each other’s way. Listening to a band this good playing a style of music this underrepresented on the current charts is really a joy to behold.
But regardless of the obvious musical prowess roaring from the stage, the venue itself was sadly underfilled, which can most likely be attributed to the fact that this is a band with an identity crisis. While they again chose a bird-themed moniker, one gets the feeling that by not using The Black Crowes name and not having much promotion or any real songs of their own save for one (the catchy rocker “Omission”), many Black Crowes fans who may have otherwise bought a ticket simply didn’t know who The Magpie Salute was, or that this event was essentially a Black Crowes concert with a different lead singer. Had that been established, the venue likely would have been packed.
Regardless of the small crowd on hand, Robinson and crew seemed utterly unfazed and were in good spirits, which can at least partly be attributed to the fact that this was the last show of their tour.
For now with the setlist structured the way it is, Chris Robinson’s absence is notable, but that is likely to decrease over time. One can only hope that when The Magpie Salute heads into the studio this winter to record their debut studio album, their vague identity will become more defined, and the shadow of the Black Crowes that hangs over them will become greatly reduced. As of now, the show is a lot of fun, but it does feel a bit like watching a cover band … a really really great cover band that somehow wrote the songs they are playing. Yeah, try and figure that one out.