It’s been a while since I wrote an album review. I think the last one I did was for Them Crooked Vultures, which ironically has a member of Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones, in the line up. Anyway, I think that it’s a commentary on how dull and unimaginative most music of late that I haven’t been compelled for critique a band for a while. Have you ever noticed how the mainstream of pop music is pretty-much cookie-cutter, formula-driven drivel? Yes, there are exceptions. And sure, I’m an old fart and as a rule we always say stuff like that. The old farts of my time said the same about the music I grew up with. But the other day I happened upon something kind of exciting and exceptional, in a throwback sort of way. It’s bluesy and hard driving, and what the heck, Josh, the lead singer, sounds more like Robert Plant than the Led Zeppelin front man has for decades.
The band is called Greta Van Fleet. They’re out of a little town in Michigan called Frankenmuth. The name is borrowed from a town matriarch whose real name is Gretna. The octogenarian attended one of group’s concerts and gave the band her blessing on using the modified name. Three members of the band are brothers: Joshua Kiszka, Jacob Kiszka, and Samuel Kiszka, along with Daniel Wagner on drums. The brothers grew up listening to the blues. Their father plays a mean harmonica, from what I hear, and has an extensive vinyl collection that the boys all but wore out as they were growing up.
The band has two current recordings available, the first is a four track EP titled Black Smoke Rising (4/2017) and the second an 8 track EP that combines the previous work with 4 additional tunes, titled From The Fires (11/17). Note, original drummer Kyle Hauck appears on some of the band’s earliest live recordings with the present drummer, Danny Wagner appearing on the most recent studio releases. Most of the songs on the EP are original material, which is exciting, since the band could have easily been a successful tribute band covering Led Zeppelin classics. But the fact they are going their own direction portends good things coming along in the future.
As a diehard Led Zep fan I was taken aback when I first heard a live version of Highway Tune. I’m still not sure whether the studio version or the live version is the best, and that probably doesn’t matter. Have your pick, they’re both tasty. The live track demonstrates the musicianship of the band members, which the studio version only modestly enhances. I get the feeling the band records stuff live, for the most part, because, having watched full concerts available on YouTube, the integrity of the sound doesn’t suffer in live venues.
Honestly, I was never a huge fan of Led Zep’s live stuff, mostly bootlegs, but especially The Song Remains the Same (10/1976), which was the soundtrack of a movie by the same name, that includes tracks recorded during the band’s heyday mid-seventies tours. Led Zep’s studio recordings, especially the later albums, relied heavily on effects and overdubs to achieve the sound and that makes it difficult to replicate in concert. A more recent reworking of TSRTM’s soundtrack with different concert recordings patched in here and there makes the album more listenable, though I question whether the trickery is a fair and honest representation of what the band really sounded like when performing live. Please don’t get me wrong, Led Zep were innovators, especially their early work and they paved the way for a lot of blues-influenced, harder-driving rock bands that followed. And most fans who attended their concerts would quickly argue that the concerts were memorable events driven by excitement bordering of mass hysteria.
What I like best about Greta Van Fleet is the faithful homage to the band’s blues roots. The 8 tracks of the EP include covers of a Sam Cooke tune, A Change Is Gonna Come and Fairport Convention’s gospel-esque Meet On The Ledge. There isn’t a throwaway song in the mix, though my favorites are the aforementioned Highway Tune, Safari Song and Black Smoke Rising. Why no Led Zep covers? That is the elephant in the room with a voice like Josh’s fronting the group. Maybe the band will do one or two songs in the future, but from where I sit it is not necessary and would only confuse the band’s brand that is still forming and gathering a following. Certainly, they could do a set with covers of Rock and Roll, Black Dog and D’yer Mak’er– to name a few and I’d certainly buy in. The band’s musicianship is definitely up to the task.
One question I would have is how Danny Wagner’s percussion work would match up with John Bonham’s original counter-rhythmic, avant-garde style. Wagner is more traditional in his approach, which isn’t a bad thing because the backbeat throughout the EP is solid and driving.
Also, I am sure Jake could cover Jimmy Page’s guitar work but at the risk of offending Led Zep purists who might take exception when he deviates or modifies the original licks to incorporate his own flare and interpretation. So, staying away from what is already a natural comparison of sound and styles and sticking to original work, for the most part, is a much better tact.
Check out the band on YouTube or, if you get the chance, see them live. I think they’re going to be around on the music scene for a while and that makes me happy.
From The Fires EP Tracks:
Edge of Darkness
A Change Is Gonna Come
Meet On The Ledge
Talk On The Street
Black Smoke Rising