It might be overstating the case to say the present Jim McCarty/Chris Dreja-led incarnation of The Yardbirds is only two fifths genuine Yardbirds. Still, three of the five current members weren’t even born when the original band helped pioneer the evolving sounds of the 1960s.
Back in the day, way, way back in the day, The Yardbirds were legendary for being the launching pad for guitar gods Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. While less celebrated, the other members too went on to distinguished careers in various creative fields. Drummer McCarty, among other endeavors, helped found the classical rock quintet Renaissance. Rhythm guitarist/bassist Dreja had a successful stint as a photographer. Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith became a noted musical producer. Had he not been electrocuted in May 1976, original frontman Keith Relf would no doubt have continued on with his musical experiments, probably with the solo projects he was working on at the time of his death.
As the decades went by, various partial reunions took place. The high point certainly was the mid-’80s ensemble called Box of Frogs featuring McCarty, Dreja, and Samwell-Smith with guest appearances from Beck and Page. Then came 1992 when Dreja and McCarty were talked into forming a new Yardbirds. They’ve been on the road off and on ever since. With the exception of Birdland, the 2003 album partially made up of new material, the two gray-headed elder statesmen of rock have been joined by a number of changing younger musicians playing pretty much the same songs recorded when the fuzz-tone sound was new.
Now, The Yardbirds captured on the two-DVD set, Making Tracks, include guitarist Ben King, a member since 2005, lead singer Andy Mitchell, and bassist Dave Smale—the latter two having been with the band since 2009. The concert footage on Making Tracks was shot at multiple venues throughout 2011-2012 using 32-track audio recordings and six HD cameras. The resulting set on disc one demonstrates, if nothing else, that the real stars of The new Yardbirds aren’t so much the players, but rather the songs.
As Clapton’s stint with the group only spanned one live album, Five Live Yardbirds (1964), and all but three tracks on 1965’s For Your Love, only a few songs associated with Slowhand were performed by the reconstituted group. These are “For Your Love,” “I’m A Man,” and, as a bonus track on the second disc, “Smokestack Lightning.” Since Beck had the longest tenure with the group, there are more songs associated with him. These include “I’m Not Talking,” one of the first three 1965 songs he worked on for For Your Love, “Heart Full of Soul,” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” In addition, we get four performances from the Yardbirds’ best and most underrated album of the ’60s era, Yardbirds (1966), also known as Roger the Engineer. The choice numbers are “The Nazz Are Blue,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” and “Shapes Of Things.”
The fourth song from that album had been a transitional single for the group, as it boasted the dual guitars of Beck and Page on the very psychedelic “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” After that, Page was the single guitarist for the 1967 Little Games, represented on the new collection by “Drinking Muddy Water” on the first disc, then “Glimpses” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” as bonus tracks on disc two. (The latter had been performed live for the first time by The Yardbirds in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2011.)
Two other song choices finish off the connections to the short-lived Page era, including “Think About It,” once the b-side of The Yardbirds’ final 1967 single, the forgettable “Goodnight Sweet Josephine.” But the highlight to Making Tracks has to be a Yardbirds song they never officially recorded, but that was issued in 1971 on Live Yardbirds featuring Jimmy Page. The song was called “I’m Confused” on that release, but it was actually “Dazed and Confused” by folksinger Jake Holmes with extra lyrics by Relf. Page used it on the first Led Zeppelin album, and the 1971 Yardbirds release came out to capitalize on that album’s popularity. It was quickly pulled by the record company, but “Dazed and Confused” is a genuine nugget from the Yardbirds canon and gets a full workout by the new line-up.
Mixed in with the old standards are versions of songs from Birdland, the 2003 release that included new material with redoings of many of the songs done yet again on Making Tracks. Ironically, recent as Birdland is, Dreja and McCarty are the only players from that album reproducing them in these concerts. These include “My Blind Life,” the McCarty-penned “Crying Out For Love,” and “Mystery Of Being,” the latter a McCarty composition the band described as “Afghan psychedelia,” although there’s a much stronger echo of Santana than Arab themes.
Another cut from Birdland is performed by the Jim McCarty Band as a bonus track on the second disc. As McCarty explains in his introduction, “A Dream Within A Dream” is based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, and his group adds flute and other musical flavorings not typical of a Yardbirds rendition. The final bonus song, also from the Jim McCarty Band, is the piano-based “Isadora,” a song strongly echoing Renaissance, the second ’60s group featuring both McCarty and Relf.
Along with extra songs, disc two offers “Glimpses,” a tour documentary which is mainly interviews with all the current band members. Among the sundry topics discussed are how devoted American audiences are to The Yardbirds, how much more comfortable touring is now, the longevity of the group, and just what a “rave up” is. There is extra footage where King visits a guitar shop, and both McCarty and Dreja compare the original group with their new band, noting the newer touring company has been around three times as long as the exhausting first six years.
As the new Yardbirds are pretty much a touring outfit with the mission of keeping an old legacy alive, there’s no question they’re trying to stay as close to the ’60s recordings as possible. This doesn’t allow for much creativity from the younger players, but rather they give their energy and spirit to the performances. Throughout the set, it’s clear King is capable enough of recreating the lines and solos of his predecessors. But Mitchell doesn’t really shine as a singer. He’s not channeling Relf, but that isn’t really required as Relf wasn’t the strongest vocalist to begin with. Mitchell does better on the harmonica, bringing back the bluesy roots of where the band began.
Making Tracks is essentially a good souvenir package for those who’ve seen The Yardbirds on tour or would like to. This isn’t the collection to introduce new listeners to The Yardbirds, but most long-time fans should enjoy the show at least once. It’s a nice addition to your library, especially if you’re a completist. One wonders what they’ll cook up for their forthcoming 50th anniversary. Happenings 50 Years’ Time Ago?