Birds of a feather rock together
By 1968, The Yardbirds had come a long way since the release of their first album Five Live Yardbirds in 1964, an LP which featured a very young Eric Clapton (the rest of the band members were also pretty young themselves let’s not forget). 1965’s For Your Love, the group’s first with Jeff Beck and the last with Clapton, represented the beginning of stage two, but when Beck departed, his replacement was none other than Jimmy Page, one of the most sort after session players in London. Along with Keith Relph (lead vocals, harmonica), Chris Dreja (bass) and Jim McCarty (drums), it was this lineup who performed on Live Yardbirds.
Captured on 30th March 1968, at New York’s Anderson Theatre, at the tail-end of what had been an incredible tour, Epic decided to preserve the show for posterity, with the intention of releasing an album in the process, naturally. But when the band heard the results they were adamant that the performance not see the light of day. Jimmy Page recounted: “We went to listen to the master tapes and there were all these bullfight cheers dubbed on. We had the right to say whether it would be released or not and we made them shelve it.”
However in 1971, no doubt wanting to cash in on the rising popularity of Led Zeppelin, Epic Records released the recording anyway, even enlisting Lenny Kaye (future guitarist with Patti Smith’s band) to write the sleeve notes.
Page shreds his guitar on opener “Train Kept A-Rollin’” while Relph sings and plays his harmonica like a demon on heat, managing to raise the temperature to near boiling point. By the second number “You’re A Better Man Than I”, Jimmy is clearly channelling another Jimi, unleashing a series of intense riffs rarely heard from many other English guitarists at the time. Any fan of Zeppelin will find the Yardbirds’ performance of “Dazed And Confused” (here titled “I’m Confused”) absolutely fascinating. At this point Page has pretty much nailed the arrangement that would appear on Led Zeppelin’s debut. All that’s missing is Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.
The band thunders its way through the extremely psychedelic “My Baby” and “Over Under Sideways Down,” pay tribute to Muddy Waters on “Drinking Muddy Waters,” before unleashing a highly energetic take of “Shapes Of Things.” The blues-raga of “White Summer” is included, an instrumental Page regularly performed throughout Zep’s early years, so it’s a real treat to hear it here. Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” which concludes side two, is given the full blues-from-outta-space treatment, thanks mainly to Page’s trippy, near mind-altering guitar playing.
No offence to Relph, Dreja or McCarty, but clearly the star of the show is Page, whose blistering pyrotechnics clearly blow the other band members right off the stage. Little wonder then that Jimmy began looking for musicians who could give him the necessary Viking thunder he was no doubt looking for.
If anything, Live Yardbirds, warts and all (the crowd noise is annoying – what is this, The Beatles at Shea Stadium?) remains an enjoyable (if primitively recorded) specimen of late ‘60s English rock, as well as offering the listener a tantalising glimpse into Page’s future direction.