The Yardbirds - Yardbirds ’68 album review

Plant-free proto-Zep. What wonders might have been, eh, readers?

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As historical rock documents go, there are few quite as significant as this. These 18 tracks, spread across two discs, capture the final four-piece Jimmy Page-led line-up of The Yardbirds in performance and studio experimentation, as the 24-year-old guitarist coaxed drummer Jim McCarty, bassist Chris Dreja and vocalist Keith Relf toward a musical vision he’d ultimately only realise with Led Zeppelin.

In many ways, this is Zeppelin lite – and, arguably, the better for it. But before we embark on sacrilege, let’s consider specifics. Disc one captures a newly remixed version of a March ’68 live recording from NYC’s Anderson Theater (originally released by Epic in ’71 as Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page). In this incarnation it’s sadly stripped of the original’s between-song banter, though it’s audibly crisper.

Disc two corrals contemporaneous studio sketches, hitherto confined to bootlegs – not least Knowing That Isoftwareuiphraseguid=“babee9c8-1b8a-4eda-81e1-42078f967d10”>’m Losing You, an instrumental take on Zep III’s Tangerine (with Plant’s eventual vocal line mapped out on pedal steel).

Also present is a gutsy reading of Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman’s My Baby (latterly forever associated with Janis Joplin after its inclusion on her posthumous Pearl album), and the acoustic-driven Spanish Blood, with spoken-word atmosphere courtesy of McCarty. Avron Knows’ riff bowls along, hinting at future heaviness, while Relf’s parping harp kicks along a ferocious romp through live Yardbirds staple Drinking Muddy Water.

Yet the main attraction here is the live set. While pre-Page-era stalwarts predominate (Train Kept A-Rollin’, Heart Full Of Soul, Over Under Sideways Down, Shapes…), actual things to come are represented in White Summer – its instrumental Indian/Arabic nuances latterly incorporated into Zeppelin as a whole, and Over The Hills And Far Away specifically – and Dazed And Confused.

The latter, featuring Page’s cello-bowed solo, is almost there, but lacking one key ingredient: the young Robert Plant and his towering machismo. It was Plant’s priapic howl that made a Zeppelin of the Yardbirds’ next line-up, and though Relf was technically incapable of taking Page’s next step, he had a measured vocal restraint that some – and judging by recent pronouncements, even today’s Plant – might have preferred in a Zeppelin vocalist.