It’s hard not to be skeptical over every “reunion” that comes along when you’ve got Toad The Wet Sprocket reuniting after all these years – five to be exact. If that’s a reunion, then ZZ Top reunites every time they put out an album.
That skepticism can turn into fear when the group in question is as legendary and shrouded in mythology as the Yardbirds – fear that they’ll only succeed in sullying their reputation and our memories with a substandard imitation designed to milk the last consumer buck out of their laurels.
And in the case of this heralded British band, it’s been 35 years since their last recording; is it remotely possible that they can summon up their trademark frenetic energy and freight-train rhythmic punch? And what lead guitarist could possibly step into the slot vacated by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page?
A tall order, needless to say.
But Birdland is an impressive comeback and a pleasant surprise on many levels. The surviving members onboard are drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, who prove beyond a shadow of doubt that they were, and still are, two of the best at their respective instruments – and even hotter as a team. American John Idan handles bass and lead vocals, with Alan Glen on harmonica and backup vocals – hat-swapping replacements for original bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and singer/harpist Keith Relf.
I saw Idan in London in ’89 as part of the Topham-McCarty Blues Band, when McCarty teamed with the lead guitarist who preceded Clapton, Top Topham, and I didn’t notice his vocals as being especially similar to Relf’s. He definitely leans toward that style here, but avoids sounding like a mimic. In the process, he comes off well, while also illustrating how underrated a singer/frontman Relf really was.
And for the answer to the $64,000 question: stepping up to the plate on lead is former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Gypie Mayo, whose blues roots and over-the-top daring are the perfect combination. From the opening cut, “I’m Not Talking” (which originally featured Beck), Gypie stakes his claim as nobody’s clone, though he is obviously relishing the chance to flex his Yardbirds chops.
The 15-song set is divided roughly in half between new originals and re-tooled Yardbirds favorites, most of the latter featuring additional guest guitarists.
This is where my “reunion” alarm went off a second time, since the usual suspects are too often trotted out (Slash, Skunk, Lukather – hired guns in search of a band) to prop up a lackluster project, and sometimes smother the band they’re supposedly guesting with.
Thank goodness the aforementioned trio, along with label head Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Brian May are respectful of their surroundings without being (in most cases) too reverent. Beck himself guests, but chose to do so on a new tune, adding gritty slide to “My Blind Life.”
Most of the covers hold up fairly well alongside the original versions, but, needless to say, it’ll be a cold day before anyone ups the ante on the Yardbirds 1965 take on “Train Kept A-Rollin’” or their ’66 hit “Shapes of Things.” (Satch does some nice gnat-note buzzing on the former here, with Vai nearly reconstructing Beck’s psychedelic onslaught on the latter.)
The best cameos are Brian May’s dynamic solo on “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I” and Steve Lukather’s whammy-infested “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” The most lackluster is Goo Goo Doll Johnny Rzeznik’s oomph-less vocal on “For Your Love.”
The CD’s first original track, “Crying Out for Love,” shows Gypie’s lyrical side and features another nod to the Yardbirds past in the chanting chorus. On “Please Don’t Tell Me ‘Bout the News” Mayo’s tone is a fitting vintage snarl, with a 12-bar shift in the middle that allows him to swing a bit before building to a crescendo for the rave-up near the end. Middle Eastern influences inhabit “Mystery of Being,” and the set closes with “An Original Man,” written for Relf, who was electrocuted in 1976 while recording at home.
The real tests, of course, aren’t whether or not this CD pleases lifelong Yardbirds fans like me, but if it can cross over to a generation that wasn’t alive during the group’s heyday, and if the band can live up to its rep live.
If they can approximate the energy and inventiveness on this disc, I can’t imagine a kid walking out of one of their concerts and not getting what all the hubbub was about.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.