Greta Van Fleet, Rival Sons, and the enduring genius of rock and roll

Generation Z is known for many things, but rocking out isn’t one of them.  They are poised to be the first generation since the Baby Boomers with no defining band.  Greta Van Fleet, the throwback rockers from rural Michigan, might be poised to change all that, proving once again that you can’t kill rock and roll.

Rock is dead, they say.  The Who released “Long Live Rock” in 1974.  Thankfully, they weren’t right at the time as the world would not have Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie James Dio, or any of the other countless greats that rose to prominence in the second half of the 1970’s, but over the past decade or so, it certainly seems like hard rock has been on the decline.  The old-timers and late-middle agers remain staples of the live music circuit, playing open air arenas or stadiums in the summer and other venues all year round.  No list of the highest grossing tours in recent years is complete without a lengthy list of rock legends.  Between 2010 and 2019, the top 20 included Elton John (2), U2 (3), Guns N’ Roses (4), Coldplay (5), Roger Waters (6), Billy Joel (7), AC/DC (8), Metallica (9), The Rolling Stones (10), U2 again (12), Bruce Springsteen twice (15 and 17), and Paul McCartney (20).  These acts accounted for over two third of the gross of the most successful tours of the era, over $6 billion in sales, but the continued appetite for live rock music has not translated into the discovery of the next bonafide sensation.  The most recent band to emerge on this list is Coldplay in 1997 (full disclosure, I am not a fan).  The 25 years since, however, have been largely a wasteland.  A few bands broke into mainstream consciousness in the early 2000’s, The Killers, for example, had Bruce Springsteen join them on stage at Madison Square Garden over the summer, but none with the impact or ongoing commercial success of the greats produced in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.  As a result Generation Z is poised to be the first generation since the Baby Boomers that features no defining rock band, no Beatles or Van Halen of their time.

Born between the mid-1990’s and 2010, Generation Z is the first to grow up entirely in the internet and social media era.  On average, they spend more time on their devices than reading books.  Their reliance on these technological marvels enables them to tailor their entertainment experience.  They do not generally listen to the radio or consume mass media.  They curate their own preferences on platforms like Spotify, YouTube, or the niche Sound Cloud, receiving recommendations from friends and relatives rather than old time disc jockeys or other promoters, making it difficult for emerging acts to breakthrough on a large scale.  They are also said to live and mature more slowly.  There is evidence they are less risk averse than their predecessors, consuming less alcohol and having a lower teen pregnancy rate while being more focused on their school work and job prospects.  Mental health is also a top concern, giving rise to the phrase “safe spaces” where they can better cope with stress.  Some studies claim they have been more successful at delaying gratification.  The Economist described them overall as more educated, well-behaved, stressed, and depressed than previous generations.  Of course, Generation Z was hit hardest by the pandemic with massive interruptions in school, the cancellation of important milestones like graduations and proms, and changes their overall daily lives during some of their most formative years.  Even before the pandemic, however, a survey by OnePoll taken in 2018 found that many preferred staying home and watching television or browsing social media to visiting a museum or art gallery.  We can see another aspect of this trend in the rise of the genre of “fanfiction,” where people create new stories in existing fantasy worlds.  Between 1999 and 2019, 60 billion words were added to sites devoted to Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, My Little Pony, and other popular franchises.  10 million people contributed to these stories; the median age of the author’s was 15.5.

In short, Generation Z is known for many things, but rocking out certainly isn’t one of them.  This is not a generation raised on the hair metal and outright hedonism of the Sunset Strip circa 1985.  There are no safe spaces on the floor of a packed concert surrounded by thousands of screaming, dancing, drunk, and stoned fans.  There is no way to curate your experience in the face of a rockstar belting out the high notes like their very lives depended on it or a guitar tearing through a vicious solo with the volume cranked up so loud you can feel it humming through the floor, vibrating into your ears, shaking your entire body.  Your only choice is to go along for the ride, swept up in the roar of the music and the crowd, or retreat entirely, hiding behind a computer screen outside the concert hall.  This is not a choice Generation Z has made so far, preferring devices to the mosh pit.  Perhaps, until now. Greta Van Fleet, the new rock sensation from rural Michigan, might be ready to upend conventional thinking in the music industry if their 2022 Dreams in Gold tour is any indication.  Let me start by saying, this is not a band for the faint of heart.  Think the music of Led Zeppelin and other blues rock bad asses played with the flamboyant performance of Freddie Mercury or Joe Cocker.  None other than Sir Elton John provided advice to them on their performance and wardrobe in their early years, saying they needed to up the ante after a private show at his Academy Awards after party in 2018.  They are unapologetically loud and in your face, showcasing an old school drum solo and guitar god theatrics.  Their stage show includes pyrotechnics, flames, smoke, and explosions.  They would not seem out of place were they transported to the Monsters of Rock stadium shows from the late 1980’s, performing alongside the likes of Aerosmith and Def Leppard.

The only difference is the audience:  Greta Van Fleet seems to be a hard rock band that finally appeals to Generation Z.  As ABC News put it last month, “Greta Van Fleet may have a classic rock sound, but they’ve attracted a young fan base.”  “We have probably way more younger audience members now than ever before, and I just think it’s catching on,” explained lead guitarist Jake Kiszka.  “It’s cool to see all of these young people, and they’re looking up at us and we’re playing a show,” he continued. “It’s like we’re doing something now for our generation in a way and … it feels special.”  The band’s origins date back to 2012 when three brothers, Josh, Jake, and Sam Kiszka, two of them twins, formed the band with a childhood friend, Kyle Hauck.  Mr. Hauck was replaced a year later by another friend, Danny Wagner.  Natives of the small town of Frankenmuth, Michigan, boasting less than 5,000 residents as of the 2010 census, the brothers were raised somewhat off the grid without cell phones by parent’s more interested in the outdoors than technology.  This upbringing did have the benefit of a steady diet of blues and folk music on vinyl, influences that remain apparent amid the more booming hard rock sound.  Like most traditional rock bands before them, their path to prominence in music was not through TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram.  Instead, they did it the old fashioned way by parlaying a 2014 demo album into regional success and then national attention.  After a stint in a local Chevrolet commercial in Detroit, the band was featured on Showtime’s Shameless in 2016 and began streaming their first hit, “Highway Tune” on iTunes a year later.  2017 would prove to be a momentous one for the young group – Jake and Josh were only 20 years old when the year began, Sam and Danny were both a tender 17.  In April, Apple Music named them Artist of the Week following the release of their eight song debut LP, Black Smoke Rising.  In September, they opened up for Michigan music legend Bob Seger.  2018 would prove bigger still.  In addition to performing for Sir Elton John, they debuted on the Tonight Show Featuring Jimmy Fallon and released their first full length album, Anthem of a Peaceful Army.  They were nominated for four Grammys including Best New Artist, Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Album, winning for Best Rock Album.  2019 began with a stint on Saturday Night Live.

As an unapologetic member of Generation X who has long since given up on popular music and who could not be paid to watch the Grammys unless the sum was quite significant, I was aware of absolutely none of this at the time.  I had heard the name from someone at some point a few years ago, but knew absolutely nothing about the band and heard my first actual song less than three months ago.  Instead, I came to Greta Van Fleet via one of their opening acts, Rival Sons, another relatively new rock band dating back to 2008.  The four short years between the founding of the two bands represents an entire era in music history, however.  To put the difference into the proper perspective, Rival Sons was formed when guitarist Scott Holiday was looking for a lead singer on MySpace of all platforms, back when that was a thing.  At the time, the future lead singer, Jay Buchanan, was skeptical about forming a rock band in the first place.  Fortunately, they forged ahead and their retro style helped make them an ideal opening act for aging stars who needed someone to warm up the audience with traditional rock.  To date, they’ve played with AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Kid Rock, and others.  They remain far from a household name despite six studio albums, a self-release, and a Grammy nomination to their credit, but have seen some moderate, well deserved success playing on Late Night with David Letterman as early as 2014 and the Late, Late Show with James Corden in 2019.  The announcement that they would be playing with Greta Van Fleet in Atlantic City was enough to pique my interest having seen them twice before, once at Irving Plaza and once opening for Black Sabbath at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ.  Rival Sons isn’t exactly revolutionary, but they are certainly a respectable band in a time period not known for them, combining heavy guitar riffs and thundering vocals with 70’s era melodies and very, very solid songwriting.

As is often the base before a show, I remarked to my wife what the audience might be like, people watching in general being part of the overall concert experience.  We are both avid concert goers and live music aficionados in general, but as we move well into (if not past) middle age, the average age of the performers we frequent keeps increasing and is easily 60 or higher.  In fact, Dave Mathews at 55 years young might be the baby on our list; our most recent concert was Duran Duran, who were celebrating forty years as a band.  The average age of the audience across these shows can’t be much below forty either.  For the most part, the only members of Generation Z in attendance were probably dragged there by their parents.  We blithely assumed Greta Van Fleet would be the same:  Old school music, older audience.  When I heard the Scorpion’s classic “No One Like You” drifting from a hotel room by the elevator, I assumed they were there for the show.  After all, what do these kids know about sex, drugs, and rock and roll?  A generation that has not produced a true rock band can’t know much about the subject, can it?  It was obvious we were wrong on both counts as soon as we entered the arena.  As we made our way out onto the floor, where invariably I try to penetrate as far as possible while my wife actually looks for an open spot, the aging yuppies, former metalheads, and quasi-hippies that typify our normal concert crowd were almost nowhere to be seen.  They’d been replaced by throngs of late teens and early 20’s, frequently in matching outfits, which is apparently something of a thing with young Greta Van Fleet fans, a fact noted by the band itself.  “The audience themselves have almost become part of our show, in a way,” explained Jake Kiszka recently, mentioning that this has also influenced his own choice of wardrobe.  “I know that if I’m putting together a suit, right, and going onstage, I know that someone’s going to emulate that.  So, I’m putting extra thought into it.”  Ironically, it appeared that my wife and I represented an inversion of the average audience member:  Not only did we not have matching outfits, but most of the people around us had never heard of Rival Sons.  Greta Van Fleet was obviously their first true rock experience and, in that regard, whatever the band is doing definitely works. 

Perhaps needless to say, critics have taken a slightly different view.  They, in their infinite wisdom, believe Greta Van Fleet sounds too much like early Led Zeppelin, as though that were a bad thing in a sea of pop music or whining mediocrity.  The critics also loathed Zeppelin in their day as well, trashing their first three albums, putting Greta Van Fleet in good company in my opinion.  Nevertheless, here is Rolling Stone’s review of Greta Van Fleet’s second album, The Battle at Garden’s Gate.  The band sets “themselves apart by playing Seventies classic rock that seemed wholly unburdened by distance, irony, cultural point-making or even self-awareness. They just really, really liked making songs that sounded like Led Zeppelin (with some Rush thrown in there, too).”  In their view, “Greta Van Fleet are just as guilelessly impassioned on their second record. You would think that maybe at this point they would have moved on to ripping off less obvious Zeppelin songs. Nope. Their stairway still goes directly to heaven: ‘Broken Bells’ bustles in your hedgerow with such gusto that it’s not hard to imagine GVF finding themselves on the business end of a whole lotta legal action.”  Interestingly, singer Josh Kiszka insists he never even heard of Led Zeppelin until high school and they did not set out to start a rock band.  Apparently, they began with folk arrangements, what they describe as writing on a “folk set up” and Josh found his voice simply by trying to rise above the rest of the music.  The comparison, however, is certainly not a bad one, even earning the attention of Robert Plant himself who described the band as “Led Zeppelin I” and Josh as a “beautiful little singer,” which is accurate considering he stands all of five feet five inches clad in a onesie with a frilled top and open chest.

Regardless, the Dreams in Gold tour represents a real breakthrough from clubs to arenas.  “We always saw shows in arenas, and now we’re the main attraction.  It’s mind-blowing to think about that. Like, ‘Wow, all these people came for Greta Van Fleet and the culture that surrounds it.’ There’s something significant and beautiful about that,” explained bassist, Sam Kiszka. “I love the arenas,” he added. “For the kind of the backstage ability to move around a little bit more, and tour with my dog now, which is super awesome. But the one thing I do have to say about clubs is we played the Troubadour recently after the pandemic kind of lifted and it was amazing. We were doing Jimi Hendrix covers, ‘Louie, Louie,’ and all this fun stuff.”  To be sure, Hard Rock’s Mark G. Etess Arena isn’t quite Madison Square Garden.  The venue holds about 7,000, a respectable crowd, but one that suggests the band still has room to grow, something that seems almost assured based on the enthusiasm of the fans.  Jokingly, I said to my wife, perhaps they are the world uniting Wyld Stallyons promised in Bill and Ted, a group that can bring the generations together in harmony.  Rolling Stone ultimately had one thing right:  Greta Van Fleet is a band without guile, irony, cultural point making, or self awareness, but that is undoubtedly a good thing. We do not flock in our thousands to be amazed by the irony or the self-awareness of the singer.  We go to get rocked, as in the Europe “Rock Now, Rock the Night” or Def Leppard “Let’s Get Rocked” mode.  The rockstar is the avatar for our id.  They channel the inner party animal who simply wants to scream at the top of their lungs and jump around until they can’t stand anymore.  For a few hours, we are one with the band and the audience, united in the transcendent power of pure music blasting loud enough to threaten to wake the dead.  There is no room for irony or self awareness in the thunder of the band or the crowd; everything else is squeezed away, crushed by the all-consuming experience.  There is only the singular sense of being a part of something greater than yourself, when you are stripped of everything except the rhythm of the music, unable to hear your own thoughts.  In other words, Greta Van Fleet should keep doing what they’re doing, critics be damned and Gen Z rejoice.  Long live rock!

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