Playing fast and loose, the Yardbirds rolled into L.A. with their latest crop of talented young musicians. An audience that started out waiting to be impressed ended up cheering and howling its approval of the still potent U.K. band.
No mere oldies act, the group sometimes bill themselves as the Most Blueswailing Yardbirds. For good reason: After almost a half century, they remain terrific (rock) interpreters of the U.S. blues masters.
The set list from the Canyon Club (in L.A.’s west Valley) included Bob Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” and Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years,” all Yardbirds’ showstoppers since the mid-’60s. The band’s own “New York City Blues” and “The Nazz Are Blue” fit right in there with the American classics.
(Photos by Arnie Goodman. They are of an earlier tour stop in New York.)
Two original Yardbirds remain, the rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty, both sizable contributors to the original sound. (For example, both receive songwriting credit on most of the album that came to be called “Roger the Engineer,” the group’s best studio album.) They’ve been reviving the Yardbirds on and off for 20 years, since the band made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The crowd expected the hits and key album tracks, and got them: “Heart Full of Soul,” “For Your Love,” “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” “Shapes of Things” and “Mister You’re a Better Man Than I.”
The Yardbirds often are credited with creating the first psychedelic record, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” (It’s number 10 on our list of the Best Psychedelic Singles.) That Beck-Page workout blew a few minds at the show. The band thoughtfully threw in the trippy studio chatter from the record, delighting the hardcores.
Filling out the Yardbirds lineup are the guitarist Ben King and two relatively new members (2009), singer/harmonica player Andy Mitchell and bassist David Smale.
King has the monumental task of following the Yardbirds’ 1960s godhead of guitarists — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. (Beck’s been known to pop up at Yardbirds’ gig or two, but no dice this night.)
King did yeoman’s work on most of the numbers, but kicked into high gear for the Page songs: “Little Games” and the original “Dazed and Confused.” Drummer McCarty pointed out that although Page had gone on to play “Dazed” with “some other group,” well, they did it first. (The song was titled “I’m So Confused” back in ’68.)
Singer Mitchell wisely didn’t try to imitate original singer Keith Relf, but on harmonica he sounded uncannily like the late rock star. Mitchell drew cheers several times, including one bit where he finished a song singing quite audibly without the help of a microphone. He delivered all the humor and cock-rock attitude needed for a smoking “The Train Kept A-Rollin.’ ”
Bass player Smale hit the walloping turnaround bottom notes and flourishes that were a key part of the band’s original sound — much like the Animals, the Yardbirds built some of their best songs around an infectious bass-line. The young man has the 1960s heavy bass thing down to an art.
Keith Relf often said that no one ever captured the real Yardbirds on record — the live performances were everything. Good to see tradition carry on.