The band -- which at various times featured Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck as its lead guitarist -- has recorded its first new studio project since "Little Games" in 1968. "Birdland" features new recordings of several of the band's biggest hits, as well as some new material.
It also features guest appearances by such guitarists as Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (The Doobie Brothers), Brian May (Queen), John Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls), Slash (Guns N' Roses), Steve Vai (The Ohio Express) and Jeff Beck.
For Yardbirds fans, who have associated the band with its impressive procession of lead guitarists, the presence of such a strong line-up is an inviting prospect. Founding member Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar and backing vocals) told United Press International several of the guitarists contacted the band about playing on the album, when word got out that the Yardbirds were planning a new project.
Dreja said each guest artist "joined the Yardbirds as opposed to swamping the Yardbirds" for the track on which he played.
"If you're a guitar aficionado you can recognize their playing, but it's not like they've dominated the track," he said.
The band's new line-up contains only two founding members, Dreja and Jim McCarty (drums and backing vocals). Gypie Mayo, formerly of Dr. Feelgood, handles lead guitar and backing vocals. John Idan plays bass and sings, and Alan Glen plays harmonica and sings.
"Birdland" was produced by Ken Allardyce (Weezer, Fleetwood Mac, Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls), who said he has been a fan of the band ever since he saw them open for the Beatles in 1964.
Dreja said it was ironic that the band is recording and touring at a time when the world's attention is preoccupied by war.
"The first time around, in the '60s, the world was in a shaky state then with Vietnam," he said.
He recalled the '60s as a more free-wheeling time, when music and the other arts were less at the mercy of corporate culture than they are now.
"The day of the individual is sinking so fast," he said. "From any of the arts -- art, photography, design, fashion -- no matter what culture or position in life you came from, if you had something to offer you were given the opportunity. Nowadays with everything so global, that's getting stamped on a bit. That's a great tragedy, really, with people not thinking for themselves anymore and not being able to express themselves either."
Dreja said the Yardbirds tried, on their new album, to bring their sound up to date from a technical standpoint, without losing "the edge or the urgency" that characterized their sound on such rock classics as "For Your Love," "The Nazz Are Blue," "Train Kept a Rolling" and "Shapes of Things" -- all of which have been redone for the new album.
He said the feedback the band is getting at listening parties suggests it has succeeded.
"What I've found -- a lot of our material has been flying for donkey's years in various configurations -- and almost 100 percent (of listeners) have come back and said, 'Wow, it's all still there, and you've moved it forward,'" he said.
When a band from a past era reforms and reenters the marketplace, it is forced to deal with the question of relevance. When its first album in 35 years is substantially made up of fresh takes on its classic hits, the question becomes more pertinent.
"If you consider we're relevant then so be it," said Dreja. "We think we are relevant. We didn't really reform. We never played the same thing quite the same way twice. We wanted to move it forward."
Dreja said playing for audiences 35 years after the band's last record has provided some pleasant surprises.
"When we all laid the guitars down in the '60s, we thought we'd be remembered for six weeks and then we'd be dust," he said. "We probably did 100 shows last year, and it's just amazing to me, the material that the fans bring to shows for us to sign."
Dreja said that the production and marketing of "Birdland" was difficult, especially because the band did it on its own, without help from a major label. Rather, the project grew organically out of a gig the Yardbirds were invited to play in the mid-'90s.
"When the band kicked in with material, I got so energized again," he said. "It's been our determination, somehow -- by hook or by crook -- to get this album made. We've financed it by our live performances and our passion. In many ways it's just like the old days where you create and get things done because you have a passion for it and an energy for it."
Dreja said the old passion is the only thing that made the new project worth doing.
"There will be no point recreating this band that appears to have such a legendary thing built around it unless it has that," he said. "A lot of people don't like to have their memories messed around with. It put a lot of pressure on us to get it right."