The Guardian recently claimed that 2018 was the year of the of the critic-proof movie. It’s assessment of Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was less than favourable, yet audiences have flocked to see it across the globe. Perhaps this is also the case for music. Critics have been equally dismissive about Greta Van Fleet’s debut record Anthem of the Peaceful Army, with one review describing it as “stiff, hackneyed, overly precious retro-fetishism”, but if the sold-out, diverse crowd in Manchester is anything to go by tonight, these opinions don’t stand for anything in this modern age.
All the accusations levelled against the Michigan band are probably valid; yes, they’re subservient to their classic rock masters of yore, but music is about making a connection and in their bare-chested reverence the band have provided a fresh-faced link to a musical past that for half the audience tonight is almost like ancient history. It was their song ‘Highway Tune’ which initially established this formula back in 2017 and fans were enraptured by its clear yet thrilling nod to its Led Zeppelin principles and it is this track that the band open with tonight. There’s a collective roar as the abrasive riff cuts through the shadows and the lights suddenly sever through the smoky gloom as singer Josh Kiszka effortlessly howls a Plant-esque “Ohhhhh, Mama!” to his adoring audience. The fact that he looks about fourteen years old enhances the effect. It’s like Bill and Ted actually learned how to play and the effect is a stimulating riot of flamboyant colour and youthful pizzazz.
‘The Cold Wind’ is an equally fun cut from the new record, made even more memorable by an epic interlude provided by second brother Jake Kiszka on guitar. The classic rock era and the multitude of signficant genre off-shoots Greta Van Fleet are aping thrived on cliché and Jake’s solo takes the format to new heights. Playing an iconic Gibson lyre-tail SG, he lithely prowls cat-like for a good five minutes with his hair caught in the slipstream from the stage fans before playing an extended segment with the instrument behind his head, eventually concluding with a huge roar of appreciation before launching into the more casual riff of ‘Edge of Darkness’.
What Josh is actually singing about may be the weak link in all this. The power ballads of this evening’s mid-section include ‘You’re the One and ‘Flower Power’ and both demonstrate the more ridiculous aspects of their homage and when he sings on the latter “Electric gold our love with tender care, Hills of satin grass and maidens fair, Now she rides through the night, On a silver storm, Sword in hand, Our fate’s torn, She’s a sparrow of the dawn…” there’s no denying the vapidity of such sentiments. Few will claim to really care thought because it’s in moments like ‘When the Curtain Falls’ which possess all the ingredients that made the genre so thrilling in the first place that the evening really works. ‘Watching Over’ is just a tad too plodding and its cod philosophical mysticism too disjointed but these moments are swiftly forgotten when tracks like ‘Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)’ are delivered with a thrilling abandon and enough invention to push the inevitable comparisons briefly to one side.
After the mid-set lull, the final third returns to the abundant energy of the show’s opening and an incendiary encore includes ‘Black Smoke Rising’ and the riotous ‘Safari Song’, replete with that other classic rock cliche, the drum solo and Danny Wagner executes with extravagant audacity. It may not have been anything new to older fans in attendance this evening, but to the huge number of millennials that have embraced these young Americans, this calculated nod to old legends has been a thrilling experience.