Unledded – Greta Van Fleet Live

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02 Academy, Birmingham, November 14 2018

It’s fucking rammed in here. I can barely see a dog’s dick: thankfully, Goodbye June are onstage right now, and whilst they’re undoubtedly proficient at what they do, throwing all the studied shapes with vim and vigour, it’s not as if I’ll actually be missing that much by slowly shuffling around the Academy in search of a suitable corner (eventually found in that funny raised bit betwixt the rear speakers and the sofa) Or, indeed, languishing in the interminable queue for the bar.

Sure, they possess – like tonight’s headliners – a Planty frontman (albeit with added Bon Scott/Brian Johnson rasp) and a Pagey guitarist: they’re a nattily clad bunch too, and as tight as a nun’s nethers. However, that’s also the problem: not only would it have not hurt to maybe select an opener slightly less similar to GVF themselves, but in 2018, exciting as it must seem to certain younger musicians, it’s simply not enough anymore to keep retreading the same old clichés in hope of emulating one’s heroes. Hence why, for every unit they’ve shifted (and in spite of how great their parents’ band may be) Black Stone Cherry still leave me cold: the same applies to a long list of contemporary acts from Massive Wagons through Stone Broken to Airbourne, Monster Truck, The Answer and beyond, and from what I see before me, it would seem Goodbye June are no different. OK, maybe it’s me: after spending several years fruitlessly waiting for the procession of new classic rock acts that should’ve (but didn’t) follow the trail blazed by The Darkness, boredom did admittedly lead me away from the scene back to prog, psych, punk and even industrial music, and a part of me never really returned. So, perhaps I need to be more patient, and I’ll get it eventually. Or maybe they really are all just crap. As my old tutor, Rory ‘Skin Up’ O’Hara, might well have said, “discuss”

One thing’s for certain though- in this day and age, any new band has to be pretty damn spectacular to grab my attention. Which brings me neatly to Greta Van Fleet. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, you’ll be more than acquainted by now with the extreme (some may say ridiculous) hyperbole surrounding the US rockers: you’ll also be aware of the endless Zeppelin jokes and references that have blighted them since they first burst onto the scene, which, from the complimentary to the derogatory, run like a copywriter’s wet dream. “How many more times do we have to hear bands like this”, “I’m off out on the tiles to see them later…”, “I’d travel over the hills and far away to watch them”, “I hope the audience don’t try to come in through the out door” etc etc you know the drill. Hell, I’ve cracked a fair few of them myself.

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Perhaps wisely, however, the Gretties haven’t made any outright attempt to deny their obvious Ledness (they’d be placing their pointy boots firmly in the firing line if they did) and even better, chief lemon-squeezer and West Midlands legend Sir Rubber Plant himself actually likes them. The ultimate endorsement really, especially coming from a bloke who spent most of the Eighties/early Nineties simultaneously denying his past and ripping the merciless piss out of ‘disciples’ like David Coverdale, Kingdom Come and the excellent, much-missed Badlands. The latter of whom, incidentally, GVF bear slightly more actual sonic resemblance to than they do Percy’s mob, although I’m willing to bet I’m the first to mention it in print…

In any case, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve: we’ve all got them, and if you’re going to borrow from someone, it may as well be the undisputed masters. After all, that’s precisely what the real Zep did, plundering shamelessly from not only every black blues artist that ever walked but Michael Chapman, Spirit, Audience, Love, Jake Holmes, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham and countless others: rather than what they did, their true genius lay in how they did it. So it makes more than ample sense that 50 years on, the enterprising Michigan quartet should want to do just the same. Unfortunately, as countless 21st century bands have already proven, possessing a third-hand watered-down influence that doesn’t go direct to the same source as that imbibed by one’s forebears isn’t always a guaranteed recipe for either commercial or creative success, hence why, for example, a lot of contemporary neo-prog is so insipid: the difference, I can now impart, is that GVF do possess both talent and creativity enough to weather that storm, and their own musical knowledge (especially if the use of David Ruffin’s My Whole World Ended as an intro tape is anything to go by) is vast indeed.

That said, given that practically every rock fan in the entire West and East Midlands seems to be presently squeezed into this 2000-capacity room, one could easily be forgiven for expecting a more spectacular show-opener than the decidedly mid-paced Cold Wind: though the applause that greets it is undeniably loud, it’s polite rather than fanatical, causing several to suspect (if only for four minutes) that the ‘hottest band on the block’ might just transpire to be, as some reports have hinted, more than a little tepid in a live setting. And in this case, it’s not just me: several other patrons can be spotted muttering and scratching their heads in a decidedly ‘is this really it?’ manner, an uncertainty which frontman Josh Kiszka’s seemingly dispassionate declaration of “another day at the office…” does little to immediately dispel.

Fortunately, however, they were only teasing: within mere seconds of the intro to Highway Tune, the curly-haired singer (thankfully now sans that atrocious androgyno-punk hairdo some screaming queen of a fashion consultant thought fit to dress him in for the video) places foot firmly on monitor, screams “LAAAAAAAAAAAARGGGGH” in a true Percy stylee, and the whole place erupts. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I witnessed a crowd bouncing up and down in such perfect unison: the only other bands I’ve ever seen incite this in people are the Cardiacs, the Stooges, Blur and the (early) Manics, and they’re all a zillion miles away both aesthetically and musically from here. Not to mention either very old, defunct or dead. So, the Grets are that good after all then: what’s more, they’re capable of maintaining the same enthusiasm at slower tempos, following with the slow-burning Edge Of Darkness (my personal favourite of their current repertoire) and the beautifully textured 12-string semi-acoustic flourish of Flower Power. So far, so good: at this rate, they might quell the old cynic in me yet.

They might. Unfortunately, they don’t fully ascend to that magic level: admittedly, it probably doesn’t help that I’m now utterly knackered and standing at an impossibly uncomfortable angle just to even get a view of guitarist Jake Kiszka’s headstock, but once I do finally fix eyes on him, the most immediately apparent thing is how much the bloke really loves to show off. Not content with the whole Page schtick, he also feels compelled to treat us to a three-minute display of Hendrix-style behind-the-head shenanigans: obviously, everyone under the age of twenty goes apeshit, but to me, it’s one faltering step too far towards over-compensation, almost as if he’s thinking “look, all you doubters, I AM brilliant- I can do THIS!” when it’d be far better if he just plugged in and let the song flow over him. Indeed, it’s on the parts where he does do that (particularly You’re The One, with brother Sam switching ala Jonesy from bass to evocative, soulful Hammond and Rhodes) that he shines brightest, with a sonorous, gliding tone more reminiscent of ex-Black Crowe Rich Robinson than any Brit blues veteran.

In addition, perhaps because they’ve been charged with the unenviable task of filling a 100 minute set this early on in their career, they do have an irksome tendency to stretch some of tonight’s twelve selections out to extraneous lengths, more often than not resulting in a touch of bemused foot-shuffling down the front. Sure, such indulgences were an undoubtedly essential ingredient in the recipes of their heroes – not just Zep but Purple, Heep, Rush, Mountain, Cream and (if the neo-classical signatures and Andersonesque vocal of the non-album prelude to Black Smoke Rising are anything to go by) Yes – but tight-as-fuck non-fraternal drummer Danny Wagner aside, their chops aren’t yet quite developed enough to cope with such exploratory jamming, and inevitably, the set does begin to lag its heels midway. A situation not assisted by the fact that they’ve also clearly yet to learn to pace a show: as a result, a surfeit of mid-tempo, similar-sounding material dominates the second half, with When The Curtain Falls, Watching Over and Brave New World blending into one seamless overlong composition.

Granted, on record, all three are fine tracks: however, there’s only so much plodding an audience can take (unless it’s a Candlemass or Trouble gig of course) in one go, and it soon becomes clear that what’s needed is a rapid injection of thrust, bravado and bollocks. Thankfully, Lover, Leaver, Taker Believer, which not only rocks like a mother but sees them finally finding their improv chops, is on hand to do just that, causing the Academy to explode all over again in a frenzy of unadulterated energy: sadly, that’s also the end of the main set. Harrumph. Nonetheless, they still have one more trick up their sleeve: as possibly the most archetypal demonstration (alongside the aforesaid Highway Tune of course) of what they do best, Safari Song is a more than perfect note to end on, and ensures the capacity 16-to-65 crowd (by now drenched in sweat even on this chilly mid-November night) leave on a high.

Unquestionably, the hype is justified: their potential, even at this nascent stage, is immense, and assuming nothing tragically unpleasant happens, their swift ascendancy to stadia- maybe even within the next two years- is guaranteed. Furthermore, the fact that they have big money – American money – behind them means they stand little chance of suffering the ignoble fate that befell this decade’s own ‘New Yardbirds’, aka Belfast-based teen blues-hollerers The Strypes. In short, as it stands, Greta Van Fleet are a damn good band: their occasionally hesitant stagecraft shows they’re still a way off from being a truly great one, but I’m sure as hell gonna enjoy watching them develop into one. And if, along the way, they can encourage a whole generation to don flares, velvets and floppy hats (something several present encouragingly seem to have commenced doing already) and start buying Fairport Convention, Moby Grape and Freddie King albums, society might not collapse after all. Here’s to a new beginning for rock: let’s just hope it doesn’t prove to be Achilles’ last stand.

DARIUS DREWE