GRETA VAN FLEET - HOLLYWOOD PALLADIUM - OCTOBER 6, 2019
Greta Van Fleet are a hard rock band from Michigan currently on tour in support of their album Anthem of the Peaceful Army. I ventured out solo on Sunday night to catch their second of two sold-out shows at the Hollywood Palladium.
Greta Van Fleet are comprised of the three Kiszka brothers, Josh (vocals), Jake (guitar) and Sam (bass/keyboards) along with Danny Wagner on drums. The band came to prominence by making some waves in the stagnant rock genre with the release of two popular EP’s in 2017, Black Smoke Rising and the double EP, From the Fires.
Greta Van Fleet has been both praised and maligned as being a Led Zeppelin clone. The main reason for the Led Zeppelin comparisons are that singer Josh Kiszka has a Robert Plant-esque, high pitched singing voice that often emulates Plant’s signature wail. That said, the comparisons to Zeppelin are entirely unfair to Greta Van Fleet because Zeppelin is one of the handful of all-time great rock bands ever to strut the earth. Greta Van Fleet are not Led Zeppelin and never will be, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good in their own way. Of course, when expectations are set so high by Zeppelin comparisons, let downs or resentments are sure to follow, and sure enough Greta Van Fleet has, I think unfairly, been ridiculed by many.
I was alerted to Greta Van Fleet back in ‘17 by my friend Red Dragon, who is a music afficionado exrtraordinaire. I thought the band’s songs Black Smoke Rising and Highway Tune, which are featured on both of their EPs, stood out as quality songs and much-needed solid rock hits.
The band’s debut LP, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, came out in October of 2018, and was a top-selling album upon its release. I checked out Anthem and while I liked some of it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did their EPs. I got my first glance at Greta Van Fleet live when they played Saturday Night Live in January of 2019. I was excited to see them on tv, but their performance was…underwhelming…to say the least. I found singer Josh Kiszka’s vocals to be pretty grating live and his overall rock star presentation to be at best sorely lacking, and at worst embarrassing.
Despite my lukewarm feelings about the band’s SNL gig, when I saw they were playing the Hollywood Palladium I quickly snatched up a general admission ticket. The ticket was moderately priced, after all the fees and such I think I paid 60 something bucks for it, and in my opinion it is always best to err on the side of going to concerts than skipping them.
Since I was flying solo, I did not , much to my chagrin, have a pre-show Shake Shack meal. Instead I waited until pretty late before heading out to the venue. When I got to the Palladium at 7:15 for the 7:00 show, the line to get in was around the block. The line went quickly though and the general vibe from fans was one of good will. In fact, a young couple waiting in line in front of me didn’t even have tickets and were trying to buy them online when an older couple walked past asking if “anyone needed free tickets”. The young couple said yes and this older couple took a few minutes and actually texted them two free tickets. Apparently the older couple’s two kids didn’t want to go to the show so they just gave the tickets away. It was an incredibly kind act and the couple in front of me were giddy with karmic bliss for the rest of our wait together.
I had never been to the Palladium before and was interested to see the space. The first thing that stood out to me was that the Palladium staff were exceedingly polite and good-natured. Both the security staff who worked the metal detectors, and the guy checking tickets, were very pleasant and warmly told me to “enjoy the show”. This may not seem like much, but considering the treatment you usually get from staff at concerts, this was extraordinary.
It was a general admission show so I scanned the area inside the Palladium and then made my way to about the 12th row of bodies from stage left. People were pretty tightly packed in and it was very warm, but the atmosphere was easy going.
The opening act, Shannon and the Clams, went on at 8:05 and the crowd received them with a subdued applause. I had never heard of Shannon and the Clams and was curious as to what they were all about. The band is made up of Shannon Shaw (vocals/bass), Cody Blanchard (vocals/guitar), Will Sprott (keyboards) and Nate Mahan (drums). The band looked coolly disheveled, as the three men wear slightly mismatched, vintage suits, with Blanchard sporting a bow tie and Mahan sporting a cowboy hat and bolo tie. Shannon, a buxom, Rubenesque blond, wore a classic mini-skirt.
Shannon and the Clams played a crisp set for about 35 minutes. The set was a driving mix of original Buddy Holly-esque retro rock, rhythm and blues and garage punk all with beautiful and precise doo-wop backing vocals. Their songs were strong and the musicianship impressive, especially that of drummer Mahan who never let the band’s momentum lag.
Shannon may be the named headliner in the band, but the straw that stirs the drink is Cody Blanchard. Blanchard’s guitar playing is a mix between Buddy Holly and Dick Dale. His singing voice is higher than Shannon’s, who possesses a gritty, lower register growl, but it is superb. Blanchard also possesses an ease and welcoming confidence on stage that is very appealing. That said, he does boast what may be the worst haircut of recent memory, a sort of thinning bowl cut/mullet combo that could stop traffic with its hideousness.
Shannon Shaw is a solid bassist and has an earthy power and undeniable charm about her. Sadly, the sound mix at the Palladium was not quite as crisp as it should have been and so her lower pitched vocals often got lost. That said, the band ended their set with a truly fantastic cover of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit with Shannon on lead vocals, and she just crushed it.
Shannon and the Clams made a new fan on Sunday night, and I look forward to getting to see them again.
After Shannon and the Clams left the stage, the road crew went to work and the crowd started to swell. As the crowd swelled, some tempers flared and a near scuffle broke out near me but quickly subsided with some drunken bro-hugs and high fives.
The crowd was a very eclectic mix in terms of age. There were a lot of middle aged and old people, but a substantial number of millennials. My rough estimate would be that the crowd broke down as 40% middle-age/old and 60% teens and twenties. I did see a few moms and dads with their pre-teen kids as well.
Greta Van Fleet hit the stage at about 9 with When the Curtain Falls and were greeted with raucous cheers. What is immediately apparent upon seeing Greta Van Fleet live is that the musicianship of Jake (guitar) and Sam(bass) Kiszka and Danny Wagner, is really impressive. They are a tight trio and Jake is an absolutely filthy guitar player who plays with a demonic intensity.
The second song of the night was Edge of Darkness, and this is where things started to get interesting. The song is a rather mundane bit of rock and roll, but the rendition of it on Sunday night turned into an absolute bombshell. Seemingly out of nowhere Jake just erupted with a dynamic guitar solo that went on a combustible and entertaining odyssey. The band barely stayed with him as he just torched the Palladium and left it in a smouldering pile. He then followed it up with even more explosive playing on their hit Black Smoke Rising. These two songs combined confirmed that Jake Kiszka is the sun around which the rest of the band orbit.
Equally impressive were the rhythm section of Sam Kiszka and Danny Wagner. These guys grabbed a hold of the tiger that is Jake’s guitar playing and held on for dear life as it rampaged across Los Angeles. The chemistry between the two Kiszkas and Wagner is terrific and they are musicians to take very seriously.
The stage set up for Greta Van Fleet was pretty basic and relied a great deal on an overused smoke machine and very poor light design. The band played an, at times, uneven 11 song set, ending on a high note with a quality rendition of Highway Song. They then took an extended break and returned with a two song encore.
If you’ll notice, I have not mentioned singer Josh Kiszka yet, which is a bit unusual in a concert review. The reason for my apprehension regarding Josh is that I really, really wanted Greta Van Fleet to be great. I really want a rock band to come along that will drag the genre kicking and screaming back into relevance. Sadly…Greta Van Fleet is not that band, and the reason for it is Josh Kiszka.
Josh does hit some very high notes with authority, but he is no Robert Plant. Hell, he isn’t even David Coverdale. The reason Josh fails as a singer, and he does fail, is that his voice is totally lacking in any texture and nuance. Josh sings at a very high pitch, but that is all he is able to do. He doesn’t so much sing songs as yelp them out. He is unable to tell a story, connect emotionally or just break up the monotony with his voice. It is all one thing all the time. This was never so apparent as when the band, in tribute to the late Ginger Baker, did a cover of White Room by Cream. Josh’s vocals on that song were actually painful to listen to they were so bad.
The other issue with Josh, and I wish it wasn’t an issue worth mentioning, but it is, is that he is painfully uncool. Josh’s style is atrociously awful and only accentuates his uncoolness. Josh is a diminutive guy who looks like a Hobbit wearing a Leo Sayer wig who raided his hippy grandmother’s closet and stole the clothes she meant to burn rather than donate to Goodwill.
Josh also lacks any and all stage presence. Every single time he came on stage, which was numerous as he often disappeared off-stage for some reason, he would return by walking out and waving both hands over his head. He looked like a second grader getting off a school bus desperate to be welcomed warmly by his parents at the bus stop.
Josh has no rock star energy about him at all. He is not physically connected and can’t move well, and therefore he wanders the stage like a kid lost at the mall. When brother Jake is off on one of his meteoric guitar solos, Josh grabs a tambourine and flamboyantly plays it totally out of rhythm and looking ridiculous as he awkwardly and aimlessly, but energetically, gallivants around.
Some people, like Jim Morrison for instance, are born with “it”, while others, like Mick Jagger, have to manufacture “it”. Whether you are born with “it” or manufacture “it” doesn’t matter, all that matters is that you possess “it”. Josh Kiszka does not possess “it”. What he possesses is an “anti-it”, which is a shame because his brothers Jake and Sam definitely have “it”. These two aren’t just great musicians, unlike their singing brother, they are great showmen.
Maybe the stars will align and with experience Josh will grow and gain some stage presence, a stronger persona and identity, get a better stylist and then learn the finer nuances of singing and the vocal instrument. I certainly hope that happens and that the band become a huge success and revitalize the moribund world of rock and roll….but I’m not optimistic.
Sadly, it feels right now like Greta Van Fleet will have minimal staying power with Josh Kiszka as their front man. They can certainly grow as a band, and no doubt will over the next two or three albums…but with Josh as their singer they have a very clear and limited ceiling. Of course, since the band are three brothers and another guy, and the problem with the band isn’t the other guy, they aren’t going to replace their brother. So it seems that the Greta Van Fleet problems of today could be set in stone sans major development by Josh.
In conclusion, Greta Van Fleet are not Led Zeppelin, and hopefully they aren’t even Greta Van Fleet yet. Despite the band’s sterling musicianship, the vocals and presentation of lead singer Josh Kiszka are an albatross around its neck. The bottom line is this, the lead singer of Greta Van Fleet needs to be cooler than Greta Van Susteren, and he isn’t. Maybe in another year or two Josh Kiszka and his voice will have matured and will blossom into the rock star we truly need right now. I was rooting for him to succeed on Sunday night, and I’ll be rooting for him to succeed going forward.
When the Curtain Falls
Edge of Darkness
Black Smoke Rising
The Music is You (John Denver cover)
You’re the One
Age of Man
Black Flag Exposition
White Room (Cream cover)
The Cold Wind
Mountain of the Sun