Pittsburgh Blues Festival Preview: Yardbirds fly with yet another gifted guitarist

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The Yardbirds need little introduction. At least for people over 40.

And for the more recent bloomers, you might want to check out old recordings.


The current edition of the Yardbirds includes, from left, John Idan, Jim McCarty, Billy Boy Miskimmin, Ben King and Chris Dreja.

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12th annual Pittsburgh Blues Festival schedule

There, you'll find that they not only helped to usher pyrotechnics into rock and roll, but introduced the world to guitar legends Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Decades later, the Yardbirds have continued to refine their blue-based rock style and tweak their roster with gifted young talent.

The latest upstart is 21-year-old British-born lead guitarist Ben King.

"Ben comes out of the contemporary music academy," said original member and drummer Jim McCarty speaking from a phone in Toronto. "He was studying rock music and our singer John Idan was working there and he met Ben and Ben happened to be best guitar there. John recommended him."

McCarty said they auditioned King and more than anything else liked his bluesy touch.

"We thought he was great," said McCarty. "We were looking for someone who could create some of the sounds we were used to."

The sounds he's referring to began with guitarist Anthony Topham, who was followed by Clapton, Beck and Page.

Each one brought a new sound and energy to the band.

With Topham, McCarty said the band played it safe, performing primarily blues cover songs. When Clapton joined the band, they continued to play traditional blues, but also started playing what McCarty called "rave ups," music used to ramp up the audience.

"But it was really when Jeff Beck joined us that we started to crank it up and use different sounds," said McCarty. "The Yardbirds sounds really happened with Jeff. That era was really when the Yardbirds sound was created and that was the best lineup for my money. The chemistry, excitement and creativity in the band was incredible at that time."

With Jimmy Page, the band took off into an entirely different direction.

"Jimmy was an incredibly versatile guitarist," said McCarty. "He could play all different styles. He really liked to play heavy rock. Maybe that was the beginning of heavy metal. From us to Led Zeppelin."

McCarty said King has a historical view of the guitar. He has completely immersed himself in the styles of his predecessors.

"Personality-wise, Ben is very calm and businesslike. He's done his homework and can pretty much play what we want. He measures up to the standards set by the other guitarists who have played with us. He has that young energy that permeates through the band. He also reduces the average age of the band by about 50 percent."

The Yardbirds were spawned from the London rhythm and blues scene in the early 1960s. The original members included McCarty, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, vocalist Keith Relf, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and lead guitarist Anthony Topham. The current configuration includes McCarty, Dreja, vocalist John Idan, harmonica player Billy Boy Miskinnon and King.

"Originally we heard some of the black blues music, mostly out of Chicago. People like Sonny Boy Williamson, Slim Harpo and Howlin' Wolf," continued McCarty. "It was such an exciting form of music. It had been buried."

They replaced the legendary Rolling Stones as house band at a famous London night spot known as the Crawdaddy. The Stones were getting too big and they were leaving to go on the road.

"We used go and see the Stones," said McCarty. "We contacted the manager at Crawdaddy and they hired us to replace the Stones. From there the band developed into a kind of blues and rock band."

Over the years, the Yardbirds have continued to record and perform.

In 1992, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2003, they released "Birdland," a 15-song set that featured guest appearances by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls and Jeff Beck.

McCarty said there are plans to release a new recording, possibly from material culled from a live performance during this tour at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York.

"This is a really exciting time for us," said McCarty. "We are talking about doing some new material. We are looking forward to the tour."

Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.


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