Elton John famously buys every new album released each week. So he’s got a pretty good idea of the new music that’s out there. He’s not half bad at spotting fresh talent, either: Ed Sheeran, Rag’n’Bone Man, and next-big-thing Anne-Marie are just some of the artists he’s backed.
Now there’s Greta Van Fleet. Not a vegan, acoustic guitar-strumming, hessian sack-wearing, trippy dippy singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon but a swaggering four-piece band obsessed with blues and ‘70s rock, they’re the latest act he’s tipped for stardom. Just last month they played the annual Elton John Aids Foundation Academy Awards Party at his personal request. And that’s despite the Michigan band (average age 20) having just 8 recorded songs to their name.
Based on the first of two sold-out headline shows at Islington Academy, it’s easy to see why. Their punchy singles Highway Tune and Safari Song, which bookend the free-flowing set, are instantly memorable thanks to their huge melodies, monster grooves, and cocky delivery. But they’ve also got enough substance, from the tempo changes to those fiery guitar parts, to withstand repeated listening.
Then there’s the quartet’s undeniable musicianship. Despite their age, the members of Greta Van Fleet (brothers Josh, Jake, and Sam Kiszka plus Danny Wagner) have been playing together since 2013. And it shows.
Wagner is a powerhouse in the John Bonham tradition, as underlined by his pounding solo on the set closer. Sam’s as nimble a bass player as you’d find in a rock band, his contribution to songs like the runaway Talk On The Street almost as deft as anything by Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris. And, on quieter moments like Flower Power, the youngest Kiszka reveals his dexterity on the organ, a la John Paul Jones.
Even more impressive is his older brother, Jake. The guitarist is the flashiest of the four, with his flowing hair, casual hips-forward lean, and loose right arm. Playing a Gibson SG behind his head during a flamboyant five-minute solo on Edge Of Darkness drives the point home with the same force as his Jimmy Page-honouring big riffs.
Meanwhile out front, his twin brother Josh sings his balls off in a style that’s not gone unnoticed by one of the gutsiest vocalists of all time. Greta Van Fleet’s frontman, said Robert Plant earlier this week, has “borrowed from somebody I know very well, but what are you going to do?”
That comforting sense of familiarity is surely another reason the band (named after a woman from their hometown, not an obscure Physical Graffiti outtake) are proving popular.
But, despite wearing their primary influence so proudly on the sleeves of their retro outfits, there’s more to these four young men than an obvious love of Communication Breakdown. Hints of The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even The Black Crowes make their way from the Deep South on as-yet unreleased songs as the fiery Mountain Of The Sun.
And when it comes to the cover versions inevitably slipped into a young band’s set, they don’t go for the obvious (say, Whole Lotta Love). Instead, there’s an all-too-brief run up Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill and an eye-popping, gut-busting rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil.
They bring it all back home to 1968 with the titanic Lover Leaver Taker Believer that, like the rest of the set, knocks out just about everybody crammed into the venue: those who were there first time round, the teenagers who’ve not yet accidentally wandered In Through The Out Door, and, up in the VIP section, Mr. Elton John himself.
Review of Greta Van Fleet @ Islington Academy on 4th April by Nils Van Der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk