The Yardbirds Interview & Concert Review- by J. Blake

Posted on 6/01/2010 by J. Blake

(New York, NY)

On Wednesday May 26th, 2010, patrons of B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill were treated to 60s-style blues and rock…of the British variety. With only two of the original members still intact (rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty), on paper, The Yardbirds are one of those bands that could easily slip more into the category of glorified ‘tribute band’, than legitimate new line-up, but luckily for them and their fans, their musicianship and sheer live energy can undoubtedly quiet even their most skeptical critics.

As the band took the stage in front of a sold-out house, the term “rave-up”, which the band made famous over 40 years ago, was instantly exemplified. The energy being exchanged between the group and the capacity crowd was palpable. Grown men were clearly finding it difficult to contain their excitement, as they strapped on their air-guitars in droves and took to their imaginary drum sets. It was a spectacle that rarely rears its head to that extent in the relatively upscale Time Square venue.

The band systematically ran through their catalogue, playing most, if not all, of their familiar material, as well as some of their more recent compositions. The majority of the latest line-up of the band is fairly young and they, including lead guitar virtuoso Ben King, bring a youthful energy and modern take to material that is now over four decades old. The evening’s closing performances of “Dazed And Confused” and “I’m A Man" brought down the house.

Before the show, guitarists Chris Dreja and Ben King were kind enough to take a few minutes, to sit down with me and casually discuss everything from past achievements to future plans. One thing that I feel obligated to divulge, before I go any further, is that the following “interview” was conducted in maybe the worst conditions possible. Because of various circumstances (greenrooms being full, club staff preparing for the show and the dinner rush, etc.), we were forced to sit in a booth, within the club, and attempt to have an intimate conversion while another band ran through their sound check.

I tell you this, not as any kind of excuse, but instead to simply “set the scene”. It seemed that any time one of us tried to speak, we were interrupted by a drum roll and crash symbols. It was an experience that I think all of three of us managed to find humor in, as we all chuckled at the absurdity of it on several occasions throughout the interview. I think it is safe to say that Chris, Ben and I all felt like we were either trapped in some kind of Monty Python skit or at the very least a prank/hidden camera TV show. Luckily they were both very nice and incredibly good sports. So as you read the following interview, imagine the three of us yelling at each other at the top of our lungs, trying to be heard over a ridiculous racket of drums and PA tests.

J. Blake: So you guys are on tour. Is that going to last through the summer?

Chris Dreja: We were in American and Canada in March and then we came back here for eight shows until the end of this month. Then we’re back to Europe playing in Germany, Portugal, Finland, Germany and France; and then probably back to America next year. So it is pretty full on, but we get breaks you know.

JB: You guys recorded a live album here at B.B. King’s a couple of years ago.

CD: We did.

JB: In a weird way, is it almost like a little bit of a homecoming?

CD: I suppose what this club represents to me; it’s like The Marquee in London. It’s sort of a regular show in New York. So it is kind of a home away from home now.

JB: Ben, you’ve been with the band for a few years now.

Ben King: Yes, it’s been between four or five years…something like that now.

JB: When you take the stage, is there a sense of history looming over you? You’re filling some pretty big shoes.

BK: Sure.

JB: Or do you just need to go out there and do your thing?

BK: Pretty much. I never let the legacy or the history of the group and the guitar players really phase me. I was aware from the very beginning that I was never going to be able to copy exactly what had been done. I try not to go down that clone root if I can help it. I just try and mix it up and blend elements of all of the guitar players, to an extent, and there are certain things that you definitely have to play; certain key things and with the sound as well. We stick to a pretty authentic sound with the gear and whatnot. I just try to get a nice mix and most people have complimented, sort of, what I’ve brought to the band; a nice mixture of old and new really.

CD: It’s like with the other guitar players. Being a guitar player band, it is one of The Yardbirds’ things, but you know when Jeff (Beck) joined the band after Eric (Clapton), he knew he had to play key parts, but we just said to him “then, do your own thing”. It is the same with Ben. I mean we know that Ben is well up for it. He’s an incredible player and there are certain things you need to do. After that, bring something to the band. Which they’ve all done.

JB: Sure. Are there things that Ben brings specifically that the other guys didn’t? I know that your last few lead guitarists were a bit older than Ben is.

CD: Yeah. Ben brings a more modern style of playing to the band. He’s a great solo player and just takes off sometimes. When Jimmy (Page) was in the band, he was more of a riff and chord guy really; a great riff maker and Ben has his own touch.

JB: (To Chris) I know that photography is a passion of yours.

CD: (Laughs) Yeah.

JB: I was hoping you could talk a bit about when you decided to step away from music in the late-60s and pursue photography.

CD: Well a lot of creative people back in the 60s were in this ‘art school’ scenario in England and I always had a passion for photography and I have had two passions in my life; one in music and one in photography and I’ve been very lucky to have made a great life for myself with both and a decent living. So yeah, in that break (from music), I had a 32 year career in photography and I worked here in New York for 3 years as well. So this is sort of a city of home for me too.

JB: Did you ever regret that you stepped away from the music, when you did? It was 1968, a pretty amazing time for music.

*And for those of you that may not know, it was the role of bassist in Jimmy Pages’ new line-up of The Yardbirds that Chris Dreja left in 1968 to pursue photography. That line-up eventually became Led Zeppelin and Chris actually took several well-known photographs of the band, including the back cover of their first album.

CD: Never. I mean I’m a very independent sort of personality and it really got to the point where I wanted to wakeup in my own bed in the morning and not be dependant on people who were a bit crazy. (He laughs) My own destiny! Although it is different now. I mean in those days; the late-60s were a bit hedonistic. No I have no regrets at all.

JB: Ben, I noticed you were playing a Tele(caster) during the sound check.

BK: Yes.

JB: Is that your ‘axe’ of choice or do you switch it up from night to night?

BK: I’ve pretty much been playing only a Tele for most of my time in the band. I went to the Strat for awhile, but you know the Tele is really the ‘Yardbirds guitar’. I mean everybody played one in the day and I kind of stick to that. The one I’m playing now; the one I managed to find is a very unique instrument and I thought, “well, not many guys really solo around on Teles.” They are usually associated with other things and they’re a lot of work. They’re not the easiest guitar to play. They’re so primitive, but when you really put some effort into them, it is amazing what you can get back.

JB: (To Ben) Do you do stuff outside of The Yardbirds? When you guys are not on tour, do you have your own solo thing going on?

BK: Yeah I do bits and pieces. I’m actually living in Vancouver now and I’ve been working with the musicians there and slowly getting some stuff together, but it seems that there is a lot of pressure on what I’m going to do. People are always asking “what’s next?” and I want it to live up to what I’ve done and go beyond…you know?

*It is at this point in the interview that the sporadic drum rolls evolve into a full on 4/4 time rock drum beat. The three of us look at each other and begin to laugh.

CD: (Referring to the drum beat) We chose our moment didn’t we?

*We sit and wait for a moment to see if it will die down and when it doesn’t, I desperately attempt to get the interview back on track.

JB: (To Chris) I have to ask this next question, because I am a bit of a ‘film guy’.

CD: Good!

JB: What was it like working Michelangelo Antonioni on BLOW UP?

CD: Well it was a great experience, because I am a film guy too. I mean in those days they must’ve had some great budgets, because in the scene with The Yardbids, he (Antonioni) recreated, actually it was the Ricky Tick club which was in Windsor and they completely recreated this club in a studio; Pinewood Studios I think. It was three days shooting for that one scene. Then of course (David) Hemmings, the actor that played the photographer in the film, he comes out on to Oxford Street. So that was a bit surreal, because that would’ve been The Marquee, but the actual set was a dead copy of the Ricky Tick. Antonioni was great. He worked with his lighting guy very methodically and calm…I thought it was a great film. A lot of people either love or hate that film, but I personally think it was one of the best films of the 60s.

JB: I agree. I love that film and I’m a big fan of Italian cinema in general.

CD: Well who isn’t? I personally am very proud to have been in that film.

JB: Are there any new albums on the horizon?

CD: More likely a DVD actually, with a couple of new tracks. The thing is, it is hard to…we have done new tracks that have sat well with The Yardbirds catalogue and audiences have grown to love them, but it is quite hard to get a song up to that standard; to meet some of those early songs’ standards.

JB: Sure, well it is a pretty specific sound.

CD: Yeah exactly.

JB: And to try and write material that fits, has to be difficult.

CD: Yes, so we’re not greatly prolific right now, but as I say, a DVD might be a nice thing to do.

JB: Well I thank you guys for your time, this has been great and I appreciate your taking a few minutes to sit down with me.

CD: Well I’m sorry we kept you waiting.

JB: Not a problem. The sound check sounded great and Ben, the Tele sounds amazing.

BK: Thank you.

JB: I’ve heard the live CD you guys recorded here.

CD: Yeah it has got energy hasn’t it?

JB: Yeah, it is great.

CD: Well that is very kind. Thank you.

BK: I think you’ll like the new line-up of the band.

JB: I’ve heard very good things about the new guys and I’m looking forward to the show tonight. Again I appreciate your time, thanks.

BK: It was a pleasure…

JB: And hopefully I’ll be able to make some sense of this when I listen back to it (I hold up my digital recorder).

*We all laugh and Chris begins to mime playing the drums and verbally mimic the beat. We shake hands and go our separate ways.

Luckily for me the recording did come out…barely.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: John Mayall Live in NYC

Thanks and keep reading American Blues News!!!

NYC blues fans, make sure you check out Albert Lee live at B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill on June 19th and Johnny Winter on June 23rd!!!

Copyright © 2010 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved
*Live Photos: Copyright © 2010 - Nelson G. Onofre. All Rights Reserved.

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