An astonishing rock band of young Michiganders crosses generations by combining an homage to classic hard rock with their own unique atmosphere.
By Steve Houk
It was during a break at a recent rehearsal of my middle-aged cover band duo that my guitarist Jess Robinson, who is also my same 57 years old, said that his 23-year old son Gil had turned him on to some new band, “they’re called Greta Van Fleet.” I say, “OK let me hear. Great Van what?” And then he played “Highway Tune” for me on his phone, and I got it right away. I was visibly staggered, reeling. I thought out loud, wait, what the hell, it sounds like our era’s rock and roll, but so new, too. It’s that thing we revered forty years ago, come back to life.
I shared “Highway Tune” with both my 22 year old son Ben and 16 year old daughter Kelly, and they loved it as well, some of it for their own reasons, as well as hopefully some of that beautiful heredity, like, maybe the eras had finally blended a bit, all my hard work with the rock and roll indoctrination had been worth it. Or at the very least, finally some young rock and roll band from central Michigan was creating not only their own unique rock sound that millenials can dig, but also simultaneously resurrecting the lost power and the glory, the long-missed and distinctive vibe, of good ol’ kick ass hard rock that an older generation can also embrace. Bonding moment 101, and then some, now blasting off.
And Greta Van Fleet have blasted off at a seriously blinding pace. Without even one full record out yet, their EP Black Smoke Rising entered the US and Canadian iTunes charts at #1, their first single “Highway Tune” sat at #1 on Billboard’s Rock Charts for five consecutive weeks with 17 million Spotify plays and 11 million You Tube views, and their second single “Safari Song” hit #1 on US Rock Radio. At Coachella, one critic called them “Straight out of a Woodstock documentary.’ But probably the most ringing semi-lol-endorsement had to be from Led Zeppelin‘s Robert Plant who was recently asked about new bands he dug and mentioned these four guys from Frankenmuth, saying “this band from Detroit, Greta Van Fleet, they are Led Zeppelin 1, beautiful little singer who borrowed (his voice) from someone I know very well.” A fun poke but hey, a mention from a true legend about GVF’s sometimes astounding similarity to Plant and his legendary band. “Yeah, I mean, wow, that’s something that’s very humbling,” Greta Van Fleet guitarist Jake Kiszka said. “To have someone with that amount of credibility to just basically say, ‘Go on boys’! Wow, man.”
Yes, all of those accolades and early milestones are hugely welcome, but Kiszka, 22, relishes the feeling of that multi-generational unity thing that his band conjures up almost more than anything else that he’s digging about this meteoric rise. Especially when he looks out and sees it first hand amongst the huge throngs that come see them play around the world, at gigs like their recent Berlin stadium show that wrapped up a warm-up slot on Guns And Roses‘ European tour, where according to some who were there, the 4 young men from Michigan upstaged the veteran headliners at times.
“Yeah that’s an amazing thing, if it’s done properly, the ability to unify people, especially that cross generational gap,” Kiszka said from Blackbird Studios in Nashville on a break from recording the band’s new album, and right before they begin a massive world tour that includes two, count ’em two, successive sold out shows in DC at the 9:30 Club on July 20th and The Anthem on July 21st, a rare feat in itself. “I mean it’s probably one of the most important and special moments to us when we can get a grandfather and a father and a son together, a mother and a daughter. I mean if we can do that, that’s a very special thing, and you can see that in the audience wherever it turns up, that you have all these young guys in the back, and it kind of stretches about halfway and then gets a bit older. And then all the older guys are in the very back ‘cuz it’s too loud up front, but you can see the spread of people. It’s really ages eight to eighty, and it’s one of the most special things to us, that we had the ability to do that, yeah.”
It’s crystal clear when you hear the story of Greta Van Fleet’s extraordinarily quick evolution that even in a small Michigan town — settled by German immigrants in the mid 1800’s, and where the biggest attraction is massive Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, billed as the world’s biggest Christmas store — that people still felt the soul of blues and rock and roll deeply enough to teach their children about it, kids like Jake, his twin brother and lead singer Josh Kiszka, their younger brother and bassist Sam Kiszka, 19, and longtime friend and drummer Daniel Wagner, 19. The spirit of rock and roll was alive and well in Frankenmuth, and now thanks to these four astounding young musicians, it is also right here, right now, on the precipice of what could be the beginnings of rock and roll greatness.
“Our dad’s musical, he’s actually got two bands of his own, he’s a blues harmonica player,” Kiszka said. “So I suppose I can pay respect to — and all of the guys can do this — pay respect to growing up and living in a very creatively nurturing environment, where we just kind of grew up playing music in that sort of upbringing. I remember growing up, my dad would show me musical things, blues records. I mean those are records that we were listening to when we were really, really young and too young to even get the blues. But there’s a special element about it that just, even being that young, it can touch your soul in certain ways. Not even having lived then or experienced the blues, but those were really special songs, special tracks.”
Like many great rock guitarists have done in the decades before him, Kiszka took to the roots of blues right off the bat, and began his musical home schooling with a sense of how the blues is the core of music itself and how you need to feel that raw blues vibe before you evolve further.
“I grew up with an acoustic first act, a very small beginners guitar. So I was trying to, at a really young age, play Robert Johnson or Elmore James, anything I could, even Leadbelly with the acoustic. And I think that’s really important, I think that it destroys some foundation if you start out with an electric guitar, you know, because you can’t understand the technical side of things. Anyone can hook up an electric guitar and throw up the game, throw up the volume and try to be Jimi Hendrix or something like that. But when you’re starting out like this, you kind of grow and understand more of the fundamental side of things, I guess that was a really important part of my growth as a musician and as a guitarist. Plus my dad wouldn’t let me get another guitar unless I knew a certain amount of songs. So I learned all those blues songs, and ‘Hotel California’, really young, and then it was like okay, I can learn these things. From there it kind of just evolved in to where I could get an electric guitar. It took me until I was fifteen, but I did it.”
The four guys in GVF realized around the same time Jake graduated to the electric axe that they could channel this love of music into something special and that is also wholly their own, once they finally got in the same room that is, which proved a challenge in itself.
“It occurred early on where we all said we think we have enough skill at this point that we can form something. Once we all got together for the first time — and to get the three of us brothers together was a bit difficult, with everyone doing their own thing all the time — but I think once we all got in the same room, and we had a drummer, we all started playing and we all looked at each other. And I think at that level at such a young age, we all said, yeah I think we can do something substantial with this. So I guess that’s why it occurred so early, perhaps. And yeah, the alternative was working at Bronner’s. So I think this was an easier choice than that.”
It’s a known fact that the rock world and music business is full of endless temptation (including Plant and Zeppelin’s unparalleled hijinx for example) and also devious and unrelenting greed, and four young guys, two barely into their 20’s and two still-teenagers, could get eaten alive with ease. But because they have their family along for the ride, it keeps them centered and focused on the prize, not distracted by things that can, well, kill you.
“It’s grounding to have family with you, in the team roundness that we’ve built, there is that sense of things. They are close to us, and good people we trust. And we also know we can always come home. There’s no reason to project and be up in the air, you can’t be as effective when your ego destroys. But we’ve been able to stay grounded because we are all tight knit I suppose, and it’s very much family that grounds us.”
And grounding they will continue to need, given the early and endless spotlight, and the intensely positive critical and public response to this rock and roll phenomenon known as Greta Van Fleet, all coming even before they have even released a full album yet. And that new record is due out soon, one with songs that convey feelings that directly touch on this stratospheric yet undoubtedly exhausting and a bit mindblowing rise they are experiencing.
“Yeah, it’s pretty much full throttle right now, and in that sense there’s no rest, and I suppose that’s a good thing. But just the excitement of presenting an entire catalog of new music, of new material that is associated with a lot of the chaos that’s going on, that all kind of landed on the record, so in alot of ways we’re challenging ourselves. And we want to be able to play it all live, and that we are excited about.”
Greta Van Fleet’s shows on Friday July 20th at the 9:30 Club, 815 V ST. N.W. Washington, DC and Saturday July 20th at The Anthem, 901 Wharf St SW, Washington DC, are sold out.