The Yardbirds | Ultimate! – Los Gem

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It is widely known that the Yardbirds spawned three of rock’s most influential guitarists — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Disjointed anthologies and limited availability of their erratic catalog have made it difficult to put their history in proper perspective. Fortunately, continued interest has culminated in some appealing collections that deserve recognition, most notably 2001’s comprehensive Ultimate! set from Rhino.

This 52-track, two-CD compilation affectionately chronicles the British blues band — from their early hard-boiled rave-ups to their latter-day psychedelic, Eastern-flavored dabblings. Ultimate! is unwavering in its determination to show the world the Yardbirds were much more than just a boot camp where guitarists honed their chops before moving on to bigger and better things.

Ultimate! begins by exhibiting the Yardbirds’ gift for interpretation. Clapton was just beginning to f1ex his muscles; Relf was asserting himself as lead vocalist and harmonica player. Backed by the steady support of rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and drummer Jim McCarty, the quintet unreels a unique brand of fervor on John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” Bo Diddley’s “Here ‘Tis” and Jimmy Reed’s “I Ain’t Got You.” Graham Gouldman’s (later of 10cc) “For Your Love” unveiled a more refined side of the group. It’s also the last recording of this collection that Slowhand appears on.

Beck’s arrival signified the band’s most exciting and creative phase. His spiraling guitar work on “Heart Full of Soul” is only a slice of the surprises he had up his sleeve. In general, the Yardbirds started to diversify their style, balancing their pop sensibilities amidst scratch guitar breaks and detours. On “You’re A Better Than I” Relf turns in one of his most poignant vocalizations. “Shapes Of Things,” “Evil Hearted You,” and “I’m A Man,” all underscore how tightly wound the band had become while the spaghetti western imagery of “Still I’m Sad” keeps things fresh and unusual.

On its second disc, Ultimate! unearths trinkets like “Lost Woman,” “Over Under Sideways Down” and ‘Rack My Mind,” amongst more ethereal workouts like “Hot House Of Omagararshid” and “Turn Into Earth.” “Happening Ten Years Time Ago” and “Stroll On” (“Train Kept A-Rollin” with different lyrics) both feature Beck and Page swapping leads and adding yet another dimension. Once Beck and Samwell-Smith were out of the picture — Relf, Page, Dreja and McCarty managed to carry on with vigorous resolve.

Even as producer Mickey Most attempted to tone down the arrangements, Page’s seasoned musicianship spearheads tracks like “Puzzles,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor” and “No Excess Baggage.” “White Summer” only confirms the guitarist had a bright future, no matter whom he played with. The set ends with three acoustically based Keith Relf tunes that conspire the singer’s direction. Ultimate! features a 52-page booklet with extensive credits, a song-by-song analysis, and an all-encompassing essay written by the late Cub Coda. To date, it remains the authoritative word on the Yardbirds.

~ Shawn Perry

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