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ACL Fest's stairway to meh-ven: Greta Van Fleet could be so much more than 1970s pastiche

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman

The rock criticism industrial complex is very mean to the members of Greta Van Fleet, a band infamous for Led Zeppelin-inspired rock music. What matters: Can they shred? Do they improve on hard rock fundamentals? Are the songs good? Do they have transcendent work that can captivate a bunch of young people waiting for Tyler, the Creator?

Sunday in front of a vast audience at the Lady Bird Stage, results were mixed. Neutrals nodded along. Executive patrons on the adjacent VIP balcony clapped politely. A guy in a shirt that read “peyote” but that was designed to look like the Pepsi logo seemed meh on frontman Josh Kiska’s peacocking showmanship.

The “wired not tired” pro-Greta argument, put out by critics like Chuck Klosterman, is that Greta Van Fleet has more in common with Led Zeppelin than folks realize: They both lifted licks and vocal stylings to make blues louder and arena-ready. And as Klosterman observed in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, critics’ disdain for this particular band comes from its core influence seeming too obvious: “Let’s say Greta Van Fleet sounded almost exactly like the (1970s blues-rock) band Cactus. If they sound exactly like Cactus, people would be charmed by it. For no other reason than recognizing that connection is like a compliment to one’s self.”

Four years of wondering whether or not this band makes expressive art or gas station coffee later, the Frankenmuth, Michigan, quartet proved blandly capable of propagating the feel of ‘70s album rock by acts like Rush and AC/DC. Led by Kiszka brothers Josh on vocals, Jake on guitar and Sam on bass, Greta Van Fleet played rollicking songs like "Highway Tune" and "Heat Above."

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Barefoot and in a red sequin top, Josh hit high notes with the audacious falsetto of Geddy Lee. Jake pulled off extended, marksman solos on his Gibson SG. Unfortunately, the white stage monitors and Playboy mansion threads seemed like a front, because of course: It’s 2021 and Olivia Rodrigo reigns over the pop landscape, having turned to Paramore and Rage Against the Machine in reinventing teen angst. By existing in a sonic vacuum, Greta Van Fleet can come across as gimmicky.

Josh Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet performs on  the Lady Bird stage during weekend 2 of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, October 10, 2021.

The good news: Jake and Josh are only 25, and like Kings of Leon shaving their mustaches to tone down the redneck hipster revivalism just before their biggest singles, I’m excited about the Greta boys eventually finding their way.

Louisville rockers White Reaper also performed at ACL Fest and likewise offered retro-sounding singles from the pool hall jukebox. They had a focus, though: Twin guitar solos so surgical that every song punches like “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Josh and Jake seem to want to be monsters of rock badly, so they perform with wailing bombast steeped in folklore at every turn. Which is it? Feral, howling Robert Plant blues or cheeky mysticism? 

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Sam Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet looks out over the crowd at the Lady Bird stage during weekend 2 of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, October 10, 2021.

In the end, no amount of set-wrapping strobe lights, or onstage banter about the sunset, can mask the laborious traditionalism holding back these talented Michiganders. Frankenmuth is known for its kitschy Christmas markets, so maybe that factors in. If a man in shades and a golf polo raises his beer from the Intel Platinum Lounge in approval, is that even art?