As the last original member of The Yardbirds still performing with the group, Jim McCarty feels a certain “responsibility” to its music. The drummer, who has played with various iterations of the classic rock group over a half-century, is not only the only original member, but also its sole remaining Brit.
“Sometimes I feel a bit odd being on my own, [but] I’ve sort of got used to the idea by now,” McCarty said via phone from Paris. “There’s a responsibility to make it a very good group. Otherwise I wouldn’t really do it.”
McCarty, 76, and the current lineup of the band — all Americans save for its Liverpudlian drummer — will perform at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 10. Staples like “Train Keep A-Rollin’,” “For Your Love” and “I’m a Man” are all but guaranteed, as well as what McCarty intimated will be a few “surprises” tossed in for good measure.
“Some [songs] are quite strict to what they used to be — they can’t really change. But there’s a lot of improvisation going on,” he said. “So, some songs will never sound the same night to night,” given the energy of each evening’s audience, McCarty said.
The Yardbirds were once a proving ground for up-and-coming British musicians. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page all played in the ensemble in the 1960s. In the era of the reconstituted band, original bassist Chris Dreja stepped aside in 2013 due to health issues, and original guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham, who rejoined the 21st century iteration, left for good in 2015 — leaving McCarty as the final member of the old guard still with The Yardbirds.
“This particular lineup is very easy. Everyone seems to be happy,” McCarty said of the group of musicians he now tours with. “They’re all big Yardbirds fans and know these songs inside-out, and they play them with a lot of passion.”
During the ’60s, The Yardbirds were invited to a rather unusual gig, playing a fictionalized version of themselves in Michelangelo Antonioni’s mysterious 1966 film “Blow-Up.” The latter part of the film features a photographer (David Hemmings) accidentally having taken photographs of what may be a murder, but long before the thriller plot is set in motion, early scenes showcase The Yardbirds playing to rapturous London audiences.
“I think the oddest thing about it was the film set was an exact replica of a club we’d played in called the Ricky-Tick club in Windsor,” McCarty recalled. “You walked into the film set and there you were in the club. It was very cleverly done.”
McCarty said that Antonioni directed the extras composing the club audience to remain stock still and stare at the band “sort of hypnotized,” which was rather contrary to the liveliness exhibited by The Yardbirds’ fans at the time. “That part of it was quite unreal, as well as the other part where Jeff [Beck] is smashing up his guitar, which he didn’t really do,” McCarty said. “He did lose his temper quite a lot, [but] I don’t think he ever smashed his guitar. But he did some crazy things like kicking the amps.”
Despite the incredible pool of talent within the group, The Yardbirds broke up in 1968, with Clapton and Beck both going on to vaunted solo careers and Page. of course, joining up with a band that would become Led Zeppelin.
At that point, McCarty was ready to try something else, too. He and Yardbirds singer and harmonica player Keith Reif decided to try their hand at more melodic, opera- and classical music-inspired compositions that were lengthy, intricate and challenging to radio play. They called their new experimental venture Renaissance.
“A lot was brought in by John Hawken, the pianist, who was playing classical pieces in the middle of the songs. That really worked nicely,” McCarty said. “We didn’t really expect that because John was a rock-and-roll pianist like Jerry Lee Lewis. It was funny for him to be playing Beethoven in the middle of a song.”
With vocalist Annie Haslam, Renaissance released music that could be said to be the forerunner of prog rock (and thus the ancestor to the likes of Rush, Dream Theatre and even Genesis). “Carpet of the Sun” became one of the group’s most known compositions, and their 1975 concept album, “Scheherazade and Other Stories,” was a game-changer of what rock music could be.
McCarty will join Haslam and the current version of Renaissance at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 12 for a Renaissance 50th anniversary concert. “I’ll be in a different place because I’ll be playing acoustic guitar, which was more my role in Renaissance as they went on,” the percussionist said. “That’s a different part of what I do. I quite like it.”
The Yardbirds reformed in the 1990s, with McCarty and Dreja returning and backed by all-new musicians. Over the next quarter-century, personnel would shift, with McCarty becoming the group’s elder statesman and unofficial leader, even though he insists decisions about the band’s direction are largely shared.
“I suppose underneath it all, I’m pulling some sort of strings, but I think if we did something like a new album, that would be a big step,” McCarty said, adding he isn’t sure when potential new Yardbirds music might be recorded.
McCarty still lives in the United Kingdom, and travels to America to rehearse with his bandmates as necessary. Singer John Idan lives in Germany, so the lineup typically gathers in New Jersey or New York to work out their setlists before hitting the road.
McCarty has come a long way from those lean days a half-century ago, and the same goes for the way he and the Yardbirds now tour. “Oh, it’s very, very comfortable,” he said with a rather raucous laugh. “We used to have Greyhound buses and drive overnight to gigs in the old days. I have stories about those things.”
McCarty has shared such tales from the road in his book, “Nobody Told Me,” which came out last year — as did his solo album, “Walking in the Wild Land.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is cagey about an “end date” for the Yardbirds, even as several of his contemporaries — notably Peter Frampton and Neil Diamond — have announced the close of their touring years due to health issues. For now, McCarty said, the Yardbirds have had an excellent 2019 touring and even playing on a cruise.
As long as the fans are there, he says, so, too, will The Yardbirds. “It’s so nice when people enjoy it, and that’s a good motivation for me that people have a good time,” he said, pondering that if the audience stopped coming, he might consider hanging up his drumsticks.
“That’s not the case,” he said. “Not quite yet anyway.”
The Guest Artist Series at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College presents The Yardbirds, with pop singer-songwriter Jann Klose opening, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, at 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. For tickets — $55, $50 for faculty and staff, $45 for students — visit www.montgomerycollege.edu/pac or call 240-567-5301.