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One bird left in the rock yard

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The Yardbirds have become the Yardbird.

Drummer Jim McCarty is flying solo as the only original member of the '60s British blues-rock band on tour while rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja recovers from a health scare back home in England.

"Chris got ill in September," McCarty explains over the phone from Toronto this week prior to a string of western Canadian dates with the Yardbirds. "He had a series of minor strokes, but was quite lucky they were minor and didn't affect him permanently. He was taken into UCLA, one of the best hospitals for that sort of thing. He was finally allowed to fly back to England and now he's recuperating."

The tour stops at McPhillips Station Casino on Wednesday.

Dreja hasn't been replaced, so the band -- which features young guns Andy Mitchell on vocals, guitarist Ben King and bassist David Smale -- is touring as a quartet, just like they did in 1966 following the departure of Jeff Beck that left Jimmy Page as sole guitarist.

And it is Beck who McCarty names when asked which guitarist was his favourite of the three legends that played in the band in the 1960s: Eric Clapton, Beck and Page.

"He wasn't always that easy to work with," says McCarty. "He was up and down; nervous and very young. Off the top of his head he could play some great stuff. I can't put any of them down though, they are all great."

The Yardbirds recorded some of their biggest and most well known singles during the Beck era, with Heart Full of Soul, Evil Hearted You, Still I'm Sad, Over Under Sideways Down and the psychedelic staple, Shapes of Things released during his 18 months in the band.

"I think the most exciting time was probably 1966 around the time we recorded Shapes of Things; the spring, April '66, when we came to America and we were sort of riding high. We'd had a few hits already and a very good lineup of Jeff Beck, Paul Samwell-Smith, Keith Relf, Chris and myself," he says. "America was always the place to come to in those days having grown up in gloomy old England and watching all those colourful Hollywood movies.

"We got treated every well, but if you went to the wrong places down south you'd meet people that would want to do you over and joke at your long hair and expect you were jumping out of Vietnam, thinking you were a draft dodger."

The Yardbirds would split up in 1968 with Page putting together a foursome known for a short time as the New Yardbirds. The band -- Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones -- would soon change its name to Led Zeppelin and become one of the biggest bands in the world.

McCarty would go on to play with numerous groups over the years including Renaissance, Shoot and Box of Frogs while recording several solo albums.

In 1992 the Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which led to McCarty and Dreja reviving the original name and hitting the road again with new musicians, something McCarty never dreamed would happen.

"I thought that was it," he says. "We were sort of legendary and that was it. I didn't think there was a chance of that happening. I suppose it came together by chance. It was nice; we were just trying it out."

It's been 20 years since that first show at the Marquee Club in London, but the future of the group appears unclear with Dreja's health issues. Whatever happens, McCarty is a free bird with a healthy solo career that includes dabbling in various musical projects, such as a prog rock group with ex-Renaissance band member John Hawken.

"I like to do my own music as well and write songs," he says. "I'm not just interested in one type -- I like all sorts of music. I live in Provence, France, and find that inspirational; I find it easy there to write songs. I think I've been very lucky in my life, maybe not to be one of the Beatles or the Pink Floyd, but I've been able to look after myself and have a certain amount of freedom."

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 G7

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