LIVE: The Yardbirds @ The Egg, 3/17/19
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
“We’re sort of underrated, aren’t we,” said Yardbirds’ founder Jim McCarty when I asked him what was the most misunderstood thing about the band.
This British Invasion band played the smaller Swyer Theatre at The Egg. No arena gigs for them. But if they are to be judged by this, their third stop on an American tour 56 years after they first began performing, they should be held in the same league as their three iconic guitarists Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, all of whom quit the band more than half a century ago.
“I think maybe the biggest misunderstood thing is that I’m a hugely wealthy rock star, and I’m not at all,” said McCarty, the drummer/chief songwriter and only original member of the band. “I’m just playing a tour for the love of it, and making a little bit of money to get me by, or whatever. Lots of people think I live in Beverly Hills, and it’s just funny because I just live in a little village in France, and they all think I’ve got another house in America.”
As iconic as Clapton, Page and Beck are in British Invasion annuls, this group’s songs as a whole are more significant than its guitar wizardry, and McCarty wrote about half of them. Lead guitarist Godfrey Townsend, only with the band since last year, has a history of performing with at least 50 name bands by his own estimate including John Entwistle of The Who, Mitch Ryder, Todd Rundgren, Jack Bruce and Dave Mason, but he is no guitar grandstander. He simply stands stock still on the stage, duplicates the riffs of the originals down to a T and lets the material speak for itself.
I asked percussionist Myke Scavone how long he had to study the Yardbirds to get the harp parts down. He said, “I’ve only been listening to them since I was 17.” Influenced by the harmonica playing of Delta blues master Sonny Boy Williamson, the group’s songs include some very complex harp parts that helped differentiate the group from The Stones and Animals in 1963 when they recorded with Williamson on one of his forays to The U.K.
All the current members of the group except for McCarty are American, and their dedication and obvious love of the material translated into an hour and a half of transcendent playing that forcefully demonstrated the influence the Yardbirds had on several succeeding generations of psychedelic hard rockers, metal titans and punk progenitors.
Lead singer and second guitarist John Idan looks very much like Jimmy Page and even appears to affect a slight British accent in announcing each song, paying respect to the ’60s. His introductions give little mention of Jim McCarty’s key role as a creative force in the band from the beginning, but Idan deserves credit for giving kudos to Howlin’ Wolf for recording “Smokestack Lightning,” one the Yardbirds early covers presented with a video in the background showing The Wolf playing harp.
The show is heavily choreographed to match the background video that ran through the whole performance and offered a plethora of archival films of the original band performing material that at times seemed to match the songs the band was performing live. There were shots of a very young Jimmy Page looking like he’s having a great time interspersed with pictures of album and single record jackets. Keith Relf, the original vocalist, gets center stage in the videos.
The group stuck closely to the Yardbirds own repertoire of songs all recorded between 1963 and ’68 with the exception of one song by Box of Frogs, one of McCarty’s subsequent groups. Standouts were their American breakout hit “For Your Love,” a “rave up” of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” “Evil Hearted You,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shape of Things,” and “Train Kept A Rollin’.”
Hearing the songs all done in row makes me realize that this band has a great repertoire almost as eclectic as the Beatles. What a shame, that their search for hits was their eventual downfall with Mickie Most who destroyed their hard-built reputation in 1968 by having them record potential hits based on his experience with Donovan, The Animals and Herman’s Hermits. “He was a guy who produced hits, and we needed a hit,” explains McCarty. “And some of those terrible things that we recorded, “Ten Little Indians” and “Ha Ha Said the Clown,” were all his ideas. Also, he was so into recording and saving money that he didn’t want to spend any time recording. He had session players playing. So, on those sessions we didn’t even play.”
Almost theatrical in its homage to the original but not a pallid copy, this version of the band often bested the original and received standing ovations at least three times during the show.