The record company man had told me Greta Van Fleet was the future of rock ’n’ roll. On stage at Toronto’s Rebel club this summer, though, the band seemed much more like the past. The young Michiganers did gloriously old-fashioned things on stage: High-voiced bluesy shrieks and moans, military-grade guitar riffs, Viking stomps, lava-lamp-lit jams, drum solos, bass solos, behind-the-back guitar solos – every kind of solo but Han.
The band’s look was something from the way-back machine too: Fender basses and Gibson guitars played by young psychedelians with a keen sense of seventies fashions. The crowd was electrified, especially the kids up front and the backward-baseball-cap-wearing bros behind them. The whole thing was as wild as a Led Zeppelin tour jet. Who said classic rock was dead? I mean, like, who?
Dancing days are here again
The two Rebel shows were both sold out – an impressive feat given the band has yet to issue a proper debut album. That will come Oct. 19, with the release of Anthem of The Peaceful Army on Lava Records.
Greta Van Fleet’s reputation has been built upon the success of a pair of EPs from 2017 and the singles Highway Tune and Safari Song, which both topped the Billboard mainstream rock chart. The band’s latest single, When the Curtain Falls, is currently up to more than 10 million streams.
Applause for the group has come from high places. Elton John invited them to play his annual Oscars party this spring, and everyone from Justin Bieber to Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx is a fan. The band also won the hard-to-come-by praise of Robert Plant, who in a recent interview cited Greta Van Fleet as young rockers he admired. “They are Led Zeppelin I,” said the former Zeppelin singer, citing the album that ushered in the era of golden-god guitar rock and set the foppish-lads-in-skinny jeans prototype. Plant also joked about the sound-alike voice of band’s frontman Josh Kiszka. “He borrowed it from someone I know very well,” said the 70-year-old rock icon.
It all comes with the territory when a new band recycles the sound of an old band. “I think it’s just his British dry wit,” Kiszka tells The Globe and Mail, when asked about Plant’s remarks. “We get it.”
Hailing from Frankenmuth, Mich., but based in Nashville, Greta Van Fleet consists of Kiszka, his twin brother Jake (on guitar), their young brother Sam (on bass and keyboards) and drummer Danny Wagner. None of them are old enough to remember when classic rock dominated commercial radio. It’s hip hop and assembly-line pop now. Gibson Guitar has filed for bankruptcy, and riff rock and meandering guitar solos are as out of fashion as the school-boy threads of AC/DC’s Angus Young.
The rise of Greta Van Fleet, however, may represent a revival. “I think there’s a new wave, as far as generation” says guitarist Jake Kiszka, sitting at a table at the Drake Hotel with his brother Josh. “It’s cyclical. Classic rock is what we grew up listening to. It influenced me to pick up a guitar.”
Being a guitar hero is no game
There are still talented, young(ish) guitarists out there: Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, Derek Trucks and St. Vincent's Anne Clark, to name a few. But, by and large, the mainstream guitar-star is a thing of the past. The reason for that could be as simple as musicians evolving and rebelling against what came before. Where are all the red-hot accordion players and cocksure clarinetists these days?
We can blame hair metal, and perhaps Guitar Hero too. The music-based video game first began making a mockery of the art of shredding more than a decade ago. “The guitar was turned into a toy,” says Greta Van Fleet's Josh. “Here was something hugely praised, a primitive instrument forged to make people feel something. And then this plastic thing comes along, with buttons on it.”
Adds brother Jake, who began playing a real guitar at age three, “I refused to play Guitar Hero. It’s all sorts of wrong.”
Keeping classic rock alive
If Greta Van Fleet intends to make classic rock relevant again it needs to break free from the Zeppelin reboot approach that first gained them notice and an audience. “I think it’s only a matter of time before anybody comes into their own unique things,” says Josh. “We’ll find a niche, and we’ll keep carving away at this thing to be able to come out swinging and be able to say, ‘Alright, now that we have your attention, here’s what’s going on with us now.’ ”
Bryan Adams told us that “kids wanna rock,” but that was in 1984. Greta Van Fleet is on the clock and in a hurry. The future of old-school rock ’n’ roll depends on them.
Greta Van Fleet plays Vancouver’s Skookum Festival, Sept. 9; Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre, Sept. 11; Calgary’s BMO Centre, Sept. 12.