Class is now in Session
I'd seen the ad and the write up. Just who ARE the Yardbirds these days? Are they for real? Are they going to even sound like those guys in that scene in Blow-Up? What are the Yardbirds without at least one of Beck, Clapton, or Page? "Brian, do you want to go, since we're not going to be able to hail a sitter this quickly?" Nah, he says, he's going to the rescheduled Clutch show at the Rave on Thursday, so here I go.
I met Amber and her sweetie Frank Chandek along with Paul "The Fly" Lawson at the Money Pit (wups, I meant Fire Pit) at Potowatomi Bingo and Casino to see the Yardbirds at the Northern Lights Theatre. Last time I was there was to see an Elvis Impersonator contest and the time before it was to meet my girlfriends for birthday drinkie poos and see the fabulous Deirdre Fellner (but alas her show was cancelled). All three times I was struck by (and am amazed I didn't write about this) the overall feeling that I'm in a that episode of Star Trek-TNG where they all get addicted to "The Game." The slot machines don't go DING DING DING rudely at you, as if to shout "GET yer BUTT over here and WIN SOME DOUGH!" Instead, they all play gentle, hypnotic electronic lullabies. They all seem to be in the same key, so the thousands of them appear to actually be in harmony as the players play. The people playing them are just as intent as they are in Vegas or Atlantic City, but because the machines seem relaxed, they are too. Like any casino, there are no windows, no clocks, and the lighting is gently ambient. So it all seems more like this gentle mind-control machine, brought to you by the folks whose land us palefaces stole. On the nice side (actually complimenting the relaxing atmosphere), Potowatomi is the only place I see the North Woods décor done without one ounce of kitsch. It's actually classy, and in some nooks and crannies, almost a museum exhibit of the Potowatomi culture. But the music of the slot machines plainly creeps me out.
I brought my smaller camera with me. They don't appear to care if you take pictures in the Northern Lights Theatre, but they do get severely bent out of shape if you take pictures in the casino. My friends had already purchased their tickets; I went ot the box office to get my $15 ticket. The Theatre seats 500, at 7:45 pm 150 tickets had been sold. I still wasn't sure what to make of this. Keith Relf is gone, and that was The Voice. So we don't have The Voice, and we have some young turk on guitar. Was this going to be just some county fair traveling road show starring the one or two guys who actually bothered to register the trademark?
After a Bartolotta-stamped dinner, we took our seats in the theatre to find out. I'd read the website earlier in the day, and was ready to review the hotshot guitar player (this is, after all, a band known for finding hotshot guitar players) and guitarist Ben King turned out to be 20 year old guitar pheenom with impressive chops. The two original 'birds in the band, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty held down the rhythm side. The other guy Dreja and McCarty found was a young turk from Detroit named John Idam who apparently worshipped the band so much that he lived in London, developed the accent, and (close your eyes because he) sounds exactly like Relf. He, along with guitarist King and harmonica player BillyBoy all had that slender Londoner build with the mop of a hair that screamed Carnaby Street, 1965, along with the moves, the loose fitting but oxford shirts, and the anglo blues sensibilities. The band was introduced with the classic: "And now, the Most Blues Wailing Yardbirds" and they were off.
And they were spot on. No, I didn't feel like I was in some crowded bar just off Trafalgar Square, but being in the Northern Lights Theatre I did feel like I was at a taping of Austin City Limits: this wasn't a stadium band set up, more of a set up of a really good niche band with great lighting and top notch sound mixing. But their gear was definite bar band. A few Vox amplifiers, daisy chained to another stack of speakers, regular mike stands, but definite PBS TV lighting and audience. We were all seated, and felt like it would be frowned upon to get up and slam along. This is a place that will be featuring Engelbert Humperdinck later this year, after all, and it's a casino, and it's the Menomonee Valley's answer to Ceasar's Palace.
reverence for who he was playing with -- was perfect. You could tell he loved this band and is living his dream of actually not only being in it, but fronting it to boot! Between him and BillyBoy on harmonica, Mr. Hotshit on guitar, it was like a new generation was picking up where the founders left off and running with it, ans that was evident on the new, unfamiliar stuff they played. Didn't know the songs but it still sounded like The Yardbirds and that's when I realized the songs themselves aren't what the Yardbirds are about, which is why I ended up really enjoying this show. The Yardbirds are more of a school of musical thought, a specific approach and technique, as one of us, Ken Meyer pointed out (in reference to the numerous guitar gods that drifted throught this band's history), "They're an incubator." I watched this with the feeling that maybe I was in class, that these guys were the training ground one must pass if one wanted British Bluesman credentials. And as Idam proved, one needent be British to become a British Bluesman -- that this was a style of playing to be mastered, not a birthright. The style of, course, is codified on their website: the rock and roll raveup, the psychedelic influence, the willingness to explore playing methodolgies not normally associated with the blues. They ended with their take on one of Led Zeppelin's early hits, "Dazed and Confused" and it had all the power of Zep, but yet sounding like the sweaty bar band just laying the groundwork you saw in that scene in Blow Up. They again thanked us profusely for coming: like they were grateful that we gave their Clapton-less, Beck-less, Page-less combo a chance to prove they were still the Yardbirds, because they were.
And then, I walked out of the theatre, through the StarTrek-Episode-Cum-William-Gibson novel, and wondered how it's going to be when I come here to see Ian Hunter in six weeks. And I'm still having difficulty picturing George Clinton -- also booked for October -- there. With all the construction, where the hell is he gonna park the Mothership?