More famous for who left than for who stayed, the Yardbirds were the ugly ducklings of the British Invasion. Few may remember lead singer Keith Relf, who died in 1976, but everyone is familiar with the bandís three lead guitarists ó Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. That the Yardbirds were more gritty than pretty, more rootsy than cutesy, and not built around a single personality may be why their music ó raucous blues and psychedelic drones smeared with garage grease ó has held its own in the 36 years since their last studio album, 1967ís Little Games (Capitol). That durability may also account for the make-up of the new Birdland (Favored Nations), which was recorded by a band built around founding Yardbirds Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) and Jim McCarty (drums). Seven of the 15 songs are new; the rest are faithful re-creations of hits ( " For Your Love, " " Over Under Sideways Down " ) and catalogue tracks ( " The Nazz Are Blue, " " Happenings Ten Years Time Ago " ) performed with guest guitarists. The reconstructed Yardbirds begin a US tour this Sunday at the House of Blues.
" The Yardbirds have been away a dreadfully long time, " Dreja, whoís now 57, says over the phone from England. " There are about three generations that may not know us. So we thought this would be a good way to reintroduce ourselves, and to bring the Yardbirds sonically to the 21st century. "
The bandís return to active service began more than a decade ago, when in 1992 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By í95, Dreja and McCarty were recruiting new musicians to carry the Yardbirds banner. The current line-up includes Detroit-born singer/bassist John Idan and harp player Alan Glen (formerly of Nine Below Zero). The Clapton/Beck/Page Chair in Advanced Guitar Studies now belongs to John " Gypie " Mayo, a veteran of the British R&B band Dr. Feelgood. Although he doesnít quite have the star power of his Yardbirds predecessors, Mayo is an ideal substitute. Dr. Feelgood were the mainstays of pub rock, which updated the classic blues rock of bands like the Yardbirds for the British punk era.
On Birdland, Mayo is allowed to leave his fingerprints on new tunes like " Mr. Saboteur " and " Please Donít Tell Me About the News, " roiling rockers with a blues pedigree that blend beautifully with the classics. And instead of making him compete with three living legends on the discís reproductions of the 1960s repertory, Dreja and McCarty brought an array of celebrity guest guitarists on board to put their own stamps on riffs and leads originally played by Clapton, Beck, and Page. Of those three, Beck is the only one who turns up on Birdland; in a twist, he guests on the new Dreja composition, " My Blind Life. " The other guest guitarists include Slash, Jeff " Skunk " Baxter, Brian May, John Rzeznik, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai. (Favored Nations is also Vaiís label.)
" We didnít ask Jimmy and Eric, " Dreja reveals. " We wanted to leave Gypie Mayo a clear pitch on the new stuff. And theyíve already done their work. Why would they want to redo it? As for the guest musicians, we thought, the great thing about the Yardbirds is, it has been a pivotal influence on so many musicians, and these guys are so bloody brilliant, theyíll all add something. "
Both McCarty and Dreja kept active during the Yardbirdsí three-decade hibernation. McCarty and Keith Relf formed the prog-rock band Renaissance in the 1970s. In the 1980s, McCarty and Dreja were part of a loose-knit recording outfit known as Box of Frogs, a project that at various times included Graham Parker, Ian Dury, Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. And in 1989 McCarty formed the Jim McCarty Band, a London blues group.
Dreja has alternated music with a career in photography and design (he designed the " Robo-Fowl " on the cover of Birdland). He got into photography after the Yardbirds appeared in Michelangelo Antonioniís 1966 film Blow-Up. " The band had a meeting with him in Soho Square. If I remember right, he was a very elegant Italian gentleman who spoke through an interpreter. " Antonioni was so meticulous that it took three days of shooting to get the three minutes of the Yardbirds performing " Stroll On, " which was basically " Train Kept a-Rolliní " with different lyrics.
That version of the Yardbirds featured both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. It was a line-up that highlighted Drejaís crucial role as the glue that held the band together. " Quintessentially, Iím an arranger, " he says. " Iíd sit behind the lead guitar player and enhance what they were up to. But people say that if Iíd stop playing, it would no longer sound like the Yardbirds. Also, I was a great diplomat, I was never a threat to Page and Beck, or to Clapton. "
Mayo, for all his skill, is clearly of the same mind: heís not aiming to supersede Beck, Clapton, or Page in the bandís legacy. Funny thing, though: after all the changes, the Yardbirds still sound just like the Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds play the House of Blues, 96 Winthrop Street in Harvard Square, this Sunday, June 1; call (617) 497-2229.