What are the odds of one band – let alone the same local stomping grounds – producing three of the world's most acclaimed and influential rock guitarists? That's what happened to the Yardbirds, who are best remembered – in casual fans' minds – as the musical proving ground for Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to refine the guitar maneuvers that made them internationally rich and famous.
But that perception only tells half the story. The Yardbirds boasted one of the '60s' deepest talemt benches, with bassist Paul Samwell-Smith carving out a successful production career, while late vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty launched several folk and progressive bands (Renaissance, Illusion) to varying degrees of success.
Fewer still know that McCarty co-authored a good many of the lyrics – not a talent that's often associated with the band's chief beat-keeper. Then again, he probably never foresaw himself as the last original member standing, after the stroke last year that (sadly) has curtailed bassist/rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja's playing days for good. (Frontman Keith Relf died in 1976, from an accidental electric shock; his spirit is celebrated in fine style on “An Original Man,” off the band's last album, Birdland.)
Going into this show – one of three dates on this year's blink-and-miss-it US excursion – it's natural to question how this lot could carry the Yardbirds flag, especially in light of its illustrious alumni's absence...not to worry, however, as Anthony “Top” Topham has returned to the fold, after a mere five decades of downtime! What a coup, indeed, since it's not commonly known that Topham preceded Clapton, only to exit due to circumstances beyond his control...as he makes clear in a brief Q&A session with McCarty, before the show.
And, though he takes some time to warm up – it's only his third gig, after all, as McCarty points out – Topham quickly shows that he's not there just to take up space...as he and his impossibly youngish-looking guitar sparring partner, Ben E. King, swap licks on the slower blues numbers (“Five Long Years”), and the more urgent showcases (“Smokestack Lightning”), to appreciative roars from the crowd. Clapton may have been the more advanced player (as Topham notes below), but he has a distinctive style, in his own right. Vocalist Andy Mitchell acquits himself quite well, too – even when his harp fights for air in the mix, at times – while bassist Dave Smale keeps the proceedings at a brisk, no-nonsense clip.
Naturally, “The Traain Kept A-Rollin'” opens the night's proceedings in fine style, and the Yardbirds bench doesn't waste much time asserting itself; while not as flashy as some of the era's better-known beat-keepers, McCarty's touch proves deft as ever, with no fuss, and no muss, just the way that we're used to hearing it, thank you very much.. (His high harmonies are pretty noteowrthy, as well.)
Of course, this being a '60s legend in action, you get all the hits, present and correct (“Heart Full O'Soul,” “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” “Shapes Of Things”), the odd obscurity (“The Nazz Are Blue,” featuring a rare vocal by Beck), and faves that the masses might not know, but the diehards definitely understand (“Back Where I Started,” which featured on McCarty's mid-'80s project, Box Of Frogs, and also, the closest that we came to a proper reunion at the time).
From my perspective, the real payoff comes near the end, with a medley of “For Your Love,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” and – lastly, to close the circle – “Dazed And Confused,” whose reworking (shall we say) by Page for Led Zeppelin has remained the source of great controversy, then and now (which McCarty slyly references as “that other band”; ironically, the opening act is Kashmir, a Led Zeppelin tribute band, who get a resounding thumbs-up from the patrons sitting in front of me.)
In any event, this 15-minute, three-song mini-epic finds King truly rising to the occasion here. Anybody should feel nervous about following Those Other Three Guitar Gods, but King doesn't show a trace of hesitation. He sticks to the overall blueprint, but isn't shy about adding his own distinctive coloration on “Happenings” – and then cuts loose with some gloriously unhinged leads, as the band navigates the inner angst of “Dazed And Confused.”
The song shakes and shudders with a primal voodoo that's bubbling under the surface of Jake Holmes's original, but often got smothered in Zeppelin's half-hour-plus marathon versions (oh, well, it was the '70s, eh?). It's pretty heady stuff, indeed – urgent and unyielding, pulsing with the peaks and valleys that made the original band a can't-miss proposition during its '60s heyday.
Had the night ended here, we'd have gone home happy, but naturally, there's a brief encore to round out the proceedings – it's “I'm A Man,” which the band reworked to such brash effect so long ago, and sounds no less taut tonight, with Mitchell sounding every inch the swashbuckling blues rooster referenced in the original lyrics.
Like much of the sounds dished out tonight, this last number's raw energy is a reminder of what made the Yardbirds so potent – even if their 1968 breakup reflected more slings and arrows than Shakespeare's outrageous fortune. In many ways, though, that doesn't really matter. They didn't always collect the rewards that they hoped to see coming, and their pioneering spirit frequently fought for air, amid the demands of producers – but, long after the tinkerers' names are forgotten, this music still lives and breathes...which is all we need, on this night, or any other.
YARDBIRDS (SLIGHT RETURN: ARCADA THEATER, 6/27/14)
Fast forward a year later, and those "five live Yardies" are sharing the bill with ex-Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson...ensuring a double-barreled night of blues-rock for true believers. That term only scrapes the surface of what both acts in question do, given all their various stylistic diversions...but as a shorthand description, it works well enough.
In the Yardbirds' case, tonight's set showcased the band's bluesier side -- as demonstrated by a churning 10-minute-plus version of "Smokestack Lightning," and an equally extended "Five Long Years," which frontman Andy Mitchell belted out with gusto. His gutsy harmonica work also shone through, loud and clear -- unlike last time around, when it struggled to make itself felt through a murky sound mix.
Top Topham also sounded more fully integrated into the band, too, as he peppered the bluesier songs with robust slide guitar lines -- and dove right in to swap licks with Ben King when the song required it. For the poppier hits, like "Heart Full O'Soul," he naturally stuck closely to the original imprint, though his rootsier approach is unmistakable.
McCarty, as ever, drove the bus without fanfare. His emphatic, chugging style doesn't always land him on those endless "'X' Number Of Greatest This 'N' That" lists that music mags churn out with tick-tock regularity -- but it's impossible to imagine these songs without them. His style is truly the heartbeat of the Yardbirds, without a doubt.
As in 2013, we got the same closing medley ("For Your Love"/"Happenings Ten Years Time Ago"/"Dazed And Confused"), which reached a frenzied peak on the last song's extended psychedelic section. This is a band, after all, that built a reputation for not playing the same song twice, which makes it fun to compare the nuances involved.
Chris Robinson's approach is equally rootsy, and unapologetically jam-oriented. Not being familiar with his solo material, I didn't know what to expect, but the opening chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk of "I Know You" made the drift quickly apparent. Robinson played with aplomb throughout the night, electing to mostly fingerpick his leads -- amid many, many guitar changes.
Some major highlights of his set included a 15-minute medley of "From A Buick 6," "I Cylinder" and the Velvet Underground's "Foggy Notion," on which the band eagerly -- and continually -- circled back to its "Do it again!" refrain like a shark eyeballing its target.
The one-two encore punch of Humble Pie ("The Sad Saga Of Shaky Jake") and another lesser-known Velvet track ("Oh! Sweet Nothing") proved equally delightful to hear, as well. I'd definitely investigate his work in more detail to see what other gems might be happening there.
All in all, tonight's pairing provided an illuminating reminder of what both acts do so well -- it was a shame to see a third full house, though there's no doubt that everyone left well satisfied with the proceedings. Turnouts vary for lots of reasons, although in the Yardbirds' case, it'd be nice to hear a new album with Topham abooard.
As one listen to the recently-departed Chris Dreja's "My Blind Life" will suggest, there's plenty of vitality left, and new musical ground to explore, so let's cross our fingers and see what happens...if nothing else, the Yardbirds always had a trick or two tucked away up their sleeve.
Q&A WITH RON ONESTI, JIM McCARTY & TOP TOPHAM:
ARCADA THEATER, ST. CHARLES, IL (9/13/13)
RON ONESTI (RO): Welcome! Gentlemen, this is so cool, I can't believe it – gentlemen, welcome to the Chicago area...It's amazing how the roots of the Yardbirds, and the Stones, and so much of the British Invasion that came here had their roots in Chicago blues. Where'd it start for you?
JIM McCARTY (JM): Where'd it start? Well, it was Paul Samwell-Smith, who was at school with me – and we bumped into each other, and he played this record, [from] Jimmy Reed...and then, we learned from there. And I heard more and more of this sort of music, and really loved it.
RO: You know, Top – it's 1963, you are 15 years old...
TOP TOPHAM (TT): That's correct.
RO: Fifteen years old – and, again, you have this passion for blues. And not just blues – and I'm lovin' it, because it's Chicago blues. Where does your passion come from?
TT: I think it actually, probably and originally came from my father – who was in America during the war, in Mobile, Alabama, and bought records, and took them home. In the latter part of the '50s, we actually got an electric record player [laughter], and started buying some of the very few British records that were available in those days.
But a lot of those records were starting to come over [from America]: Big Boy Arnold, Snooky Prior, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed...and I think the bands of that time were really people that had a passion for that music, and wanted to learn to play it, and do it together. And that's how it started.
RO: The Yardbirds, obviously, kicked off the careers of [Eric] Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck. How did that transition happen, and what was the feeling of the Yardbirds, as the [Led] Zeppelin experience began to happen?
JM: By the time we broke the Yardbirds up, we'd sort of had enough of it, this whole thing of touring. We'd done five years, full on, and people were really tired – we were all sort of fairly dead, more or less [crowd laughs heartily]. We had to start over. That was the only way we could survive. I think, at that particular time, we'd had enough, and we all were quite happy to leave.
But, of course, they were all fresh [in Led Zeppelin] – Jimmy had been with us about a year or so, and the rest of the guys were very fresh. And they didn't have to...The whole market changed between single records, and albums, and Zeppelin didn't have to record a single – 'cause we were always trying to get the next hit single, all the time, in the '60s. And everything changed at the end of the '60s, and the '70s, and [bands] made albums, before you know it.
RO: Now, Top, you had left in '63. Again, you're 15, 16 years old – why did you actually leave the Yardbirds at the time?
TT: Why did I leave? Well, I think were probably a number of reasons – Jim might have a different version. From my point of view, I had studied art, and was fortunate enough to be very talented. I got into an art school when I was 15, and had no qualifications, which was just what my parents wanted.
The idea of playing music in those days was just an unknown thing for them – it was something that they couldn't really comprehend, and they didn't agree with it, and they actually made life quite difficult for me...so I really had to. Plus, Eric – who we all knew, and I went to school with – I think he was a more advanced player, at that time, than I was. And, for that time, he was the right guy for the job.
RO: Clapton was actually at that school?
TT: Yes, Chris Dreja, Eric and myself were all at school together. Eric used to come round on Saturday mornings, and bring records – the latest Robert Johnson, or Blind Boy Fuller, or something – 'cause we were listening to country blues a lot in those days. And, when we had the new record, we had to listen to it, over and again [to learn the songs].
JM: Well, Eric was more ambitious than you, wasn't he?
TT: He was.
JM: He really wanted to make it big...
TT: That is true.
RO: Now, Jim, you were very, very involved in these other bands – what was the driving force with all these bands?
JM: Well, Keith and I formed Renaissance [strong applause from the audience]. The keyboard player was John Hawken, who's down in New Jersey now. He's a fantastic rock 'n' roll pianist, started in the Nashville Teens, and then, went on to Renaissance. He played with the Strawbs, as well, which was a great band – and then, we had another band called Illusion, and then, of course, Box Of Frogs, which was like another Yardbirds.
RO: Now, 1992: very big year for the Yardbirds, right? Tell me about that experience – that had to be something. Tell me about the phone call first – how'd you find out you were being inducted [into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame]?
JM: I think we'd been put out before, you know, suggested – I think it was the third time we'd been nominated, and then, finally, we got in there, and it was great, you know.
RO: What was the night like for you?
JM: Well, it was good fun. We met all these people that were our heroes, you know, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King – Jimi Hendrix, obviously, wasn't there, but his father was there...and Sam and Dave. It was great fun.
RO: What's the chance – everybody wants to know, what's the chance of Jeff Beck coming [and sitting in] tonight, or Jimmy Page, or Eric...
RM: I don't think he's here tonight [laughter from the audience]!
RO: You never know – you never know! [Introduces Byrd, from WDRV 97.1: The Drive, to ask the last question.]
BYRD: Oh, yeah, good to see you – well, I actually have one and a half questions...the real question is, you did a great album just a few years ago – does anybody have it, it's called BIRDLAND? [Some notable claps in response] Are there any projects that are coming up, maybe some new material, or maybe some re-releases of some of the classics, that you'd like to tell anybody about?
JM: Well, there's a fiftieth anniversary this year, round about now – I think there might be something happening this year, in terms of a big boxed set coming out – and we're actually doing a UK tour with the Animals, and the Zombies [NOTE: This outing begins in January 2014].
YARDBIRDS OFFICIAL SITE:
JIM McCARTY INTERVIEW ON SONGWRITING:
ABOUT THE ARCADA THEATRE: