The story of British '60s blues rockers The Yardbirds is as weirdly fractured as it is wonderfully storied. This is the group that launched the careers of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton—three of the guitarists that conventional wisdom dictates are in the all-time top five.
The trouble is, that blessing has also been the Yardbirds' downfall because, unfortunately, history has viewed them as a sort of feeder band. The Brit Invasion equivalent of a minor league baseall team. And yet, when you comb over the Yardbirds' back catalog, the material is mighty impressive.
Of course, it didn't help that they were only around for five years, between 1963 and '68, before Page morphed it into The New Yardbirds, which in turn morphed into Led Zeppelin. Founding members like drummer Jim McCarty and guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja were out in the cold, until that pair decided to resurrect the Yardbirds name in 1992, aided by a bunch of new guys.
Since then, band members have come and gone. Dreja left in 2013 for medical reasons, leaving McCarty the only remaining original Yardbird. But not before putting out the Birdland album in 2003. Frankly, things move slowly in the Yardbirds' world nowadays, but McCarty says that a new album isn't off the table.
"We were going to do something last year, but it didn't really come off," the drummer says. "We didn't really have enough material. But it's always a possibility if we get enough good material. We can't really go half-cocked with the Yardbirds. It has to be really good stuff."
Alongside McCarty in the current incarnation of the band is singer/guitarist John Idan, who has been in on-and-off since the 1992 reformation. Bassist Kenny Aaronson, guitarist Johnny A. and percussionist Myke Scavone have all been Yardbirds since 2015.
"We seem to all get on well together," says McCarty. "There's a good chemistry. We seem to get better and better. All the subtle little things are coming together. It's been nearly two-and-a-half years, and it's been good. We're easily picking up with each other and seem to play off each other very well."
That's good, because hiring musicians to play in The Yardbirds can't be easy. The weight of history must hang around their necks like anvils when these guys consider the bonafide legends that came before them.
"The good thing with this band is they all know the material inside out," McCarty says. "They're fans of the Yardbirds, so they know that stuff and have played it many times before in their early bands, and that helps a lot when they're enthusiastic about it. I think they got the spirit of the original band—the excitement, the cohesion and ability to think outside the box. I was lucky with these guys because I didn't do a whole lot of auditions or anything. They just sort of came up and it all fell in place very easily. Johnny's style is very in that Jeff Beck mold. He gets a very nice sound, a rich sound, and he's a very exciting player. He fits in very well."
McCarty himself is 74 now. He's been doing this touring thing for a long time, and he has to take it a little easier than he used to. Still, it's the trips to the United States from his current home in France that keep him going.
"Something about it I really enjoy," he says. "Also, I think the repertoire is very strong, and as long as I'm not playing every night of the week, every week of the year, it's very enjoyable to do that for a few weeks at a time. There are so many good songs that are always enjoyable to play. I just enjoy being out there."
He's right about the strong repertoire. Those five glory years in the '60s saw the band put out five excellent albums and a string of hit singles. One would imagine that the setlist pretty much puts itself together.
"It's obvious in a way," McCarty says. "Sometimes we rotate some of the songs, but the main body of work is always there. All the hits, and the great blues covers like, 'Train Kept a Rollin'.' All those. We have to do those, so there's not much room for anything else. We did do a couple from Birdland for a while. They don't seem to be there at the moment. Maybe they'll creep in because sometimes it's nice to play something you haven't done for a while. That keeps it all fresh."
McCarty says that a nice mixture of people comes out to see The Yardbirds nowadays. Many who remember the 1960s era, of course. But also younger people attracted to the history of the band. Perhaps they enjoy the Led Zeppelin connection, or maybe they're just budding rock 'n' roll historians.
"Sometimes there are three generations of people," McCarty says. "There are people who never saw the band. There are kids that are very keen. Maybe they get dragged in there by their parents, but they all seem to enjoy it. The crux of the audience is that 1960s generation. But it's across the board."
For McCarty though, the drummer is just happy to still be out there playing to people who want to hear the music he's been performing for half a century. He's no spring chicken anymore, but that just means managing the tour efficiently.
"It's a rollercoaster, and I have to be careful that I don't overdo it," he says. "Four shows in a row is enough for me, and then I can have a day or two off. That way, I can enjoy it. I don't want to just go on like the '60s playing night after night. You don't know where you are, and you're like a zombie. I wouldn't enjoy that. The traveling is very well organized. We've got a great tour manager and guys around helping—as long as we've got that, it makes it very easy. You need a very good crew and satellite navigation."
McCarty is excited about coming to Tucson, because he enjoys the dry Arizona heat and the rocky landscape. His home in France, he says, has a vaguely similar climate and it's good for his asthma.
"I got fed up with the damp and humidity in England," he says. "I've suffered from asthma and bronchitis and all that stuff. I'm fine where I am at the moment—there's no problem."
When this tour is over, McCarty will return home and continue with his solo career. He has a new album out called Walking in the Wild Land and a book called Nobody Told Me. He keeps himself busy. But it surely won't be too long before the Yardbirds are calling his name again.
History says that he can't keep away.