Wow! Talk about getting blown away by a show, the last time that this writer witnessed a performance that was on this level of adrenaline rushing intensity was at the Bruce Springsteen and the “E Street Band” “MODA” center appearance in 2013. Tonight it was Greta Van Fleet, representing the incarnate personification of youthful exuberance. Before the show began I ran into a recent Oregon transplant named Pat who just moved to the West Coast from Detroit, Michigan. “’Greta Van Fleet” sold out the 5,000 seat Fox theater in downtown Detroit three nights in a row,” he enthusiastically explained.
“Greta Van Fleet” played in Portland, Oregon last October, almost a year earlier at the 500 seat Hawthorne theater to a sold out gathering of enthusiastic screaming fans that knew their songs with such familiarity that they sang along with them. Tonight they were playing at one of the best mid size venues in the city, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, with a capacity of over 2,800. I wondered if they were popular enough 2,400 miles away from their home in Frankenmuth, Michigan to fill this venue. By the time Greta Van Fleet’s set began, the only vacant seats were from the rabid fans that stormed the stage and nearly knocked this writer over as he was photographing from center stage.
After WWII, Detroit, Michigan was a boom town, with the “Big Three” American automobile companies selling cars as fast as the industry could produce them. There were more good paying jobs than workers who were available to fill in the supporting industries, producing steel and tires, along with foundries and hundreds of machine, pattern and tool & die shops across the Greater Detroit area. This drew both White and Black workers from the Deep South who brought with them their music. The mix of gospel, country, folk, blues and jazz gave birth to R&B and Rock & Roll, which reached maturity in the early 1960s when Motown was born and then the emergence of the Detroit rock and roll scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Greta Van Fleet is a worthy addition to the “Wolverine” state’s rock & roll pantheon. Michigan has been the home of some of the most important artists of the twentieth-century, which includes Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder along with seminal rockers like the MC5, Iggy & the Stooges, the Bob Seger System, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes and Grand Funk Railroad to name some along with more recent additions like Kid Rock, Eminem and The White Stripes. The quartet is comprised of brothers; vocalist Josh and guitarist Jake Kiszka. The duo graduated from high school a few years before younger brother and bass player Sam along with their best friend and drummer, Danny Wagner, who are both nineteen. They could only tour in the summer and during the holidays, until June 2017 when the latter pair graduated. Since then they have been touring relentlessly and have released a pair of four song EPs, that were combined into a double EP, titled From the Fires. Their first full length album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, is due to be released in October.
The opening act was “Dorothy,” a raucous psychedelic rock band from Los Angeles fronted by vocalist Dorothy Martin, that played a forty-five minute set. The quintet rocked the house with cuts from both their 2016 release, Rockisdead, along with their 2018 release, 28 Days in the Valley. Songs included “Down to the Bottom” and “Flawless,” in the tradition of the San Francisco hippie era bands like “Jefferson Airplane” and “Cold Blood.”
At 9:30 PM Greta Van Fleet took the stage and began the show with “Highway Tune,” which was their debut single and immediately drew a positive response from the packed house that was on its feet for the entire show. Josh Kiszka’s voice soared, as Jake laid down his guitar chops. “Edge of Darkness” and “Flower Power” gave the rhythm section a chance to shine, as bass player Sam Kinszka filled two roles as both bass player and keyboardist, while drummer, Danny Wagner ravaged his drum kit with the intensity of Ginger Baker or Terry Bozzio. Sam put down his bass and sat at the organ for “Flower Power” whose keyboard riff sounded eerily similar to “Your Time Is Gonna Come” from “Led Zeppelin’s” eponymous debut album. Coincidentally John Paul Jones played both bass and keyboards.
When comparing “Greta Van Fleet’s” performance at this show to last years the growth is impressive. Everything from their stage apparel to the intensity of their performance was augmented along with the audience size. Josh and Sam both wore gold pants and Josh had feathers dangling and wore a hippie headband. Even Jake and Danny were wearing garish outfits, rather than normal street clothes
Their entire set was only an hour long, including the encore, but the vibrant intensity was so phenomenal that it made it seem longer. Songs were played in the tradition of the 1960s jam bands, like the “Grateful Dead,” “New Riders of the Purple Sage” and “Quicksilver Messenger Service,” that extended three and four minute singles into epic ten minute sonic excursions. The only criticism that anyone could have of the show, was that it was too short. The remainder of the set included Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil,” and the show closer “When the Curtain Falls,” from their upcoming debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army.
Every concert has an encore and the popularity of the act can be indicated by how long and intense the crowd cheers before the band returns. When “Greta Van Fleet’s” seven song set ended, the rabid crowd screamed, clapped and went nuts at a volume that equaled the concert itself for over five minutes until the band finally returned to the stage. As they began “Black Smoke Rising” the crowd sang the chorus,
“And the black smoke rises
From the fires we’ve been told…”
“Safari Song” was the barn burner that the show concluded with, as it gave the quartet an opportunity to indelibly inoculate the audience with one final adrenaline rush. Josh’s stellar crystal clear high octave vocals, reminiscent of Robert Plant or Freddy Mercury, along with Jakes Pete Townsend power chords and Sam dancing with his bass gave way to Danny Wagner’s violently intense drum solo. Wagner’s solo was a flashback of the late “Who” drummer Keith Moon in its intensity, but without the destructive conclusion. Maybe next year Greta Van Fleet will fill the 18,000 seat “MODA” center and amp up their performance by destroying their equipment for the grand finale.
Review by Bob Gersztyn