The second leg of Michigan rock band Greta Van Fleet’s Strange Horizons Tour, which showcased their well-received second album The Battle At Garden’s Gate, featured two nearly sold-out shows in Bridgeport, Conn., the second of which I made my way across the eastern half of the country to see.
Outside of the Hartford Healthcare Amphitheater, the crowd was peppered with Led Zeppelin T-shirts, flower crowns and masks — the latter a depressing reminder of the reality that, although live music has returned, the pandemic has not left.
After two outstanding opening acts by The Nude Party and Langhorne Slim, the vaulted ceiling of white beams was cloaked by a cool New England night. As the headliner’s instruments were unveiled from under sheets of black and triple-checked against a semi-circle of billowing white curtains composing the stage, the crowd began to buzz. Super 8 images of the band in an open field fluttered on both sides of the stage, complete with fragments of the band’s philosophy gently uttered in a voice of wonder. People began to stand and scream as the long-awaited Greta Van Fleet took the stage and frontman Josh Kiszka shrieked a welcoming “good evening.”
Two hours prior, The Nude Party, a six-piece ensemble banded by a love of ’60s rock and work on a New York farm, opened to a sparse crowd they quickly won over with a brilliant cover of “Sweet Virginia.” Particularly impressive in the setlist was the band’s own “What’s The Deal?”, the opening lines of which were inevitably patronizing yet charming coming from the group of 20-somethings: “What’s the matter with kids these days / they never do a thing that I say.” Throughout the set, The Nude Party articulated the wisdom of youthful angst atop tracks that merged ’60s soul with musings on modern times.
Entering early during an annoyingly long transition, country-folk singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim murmured “check” a few too many times to remind us we were waiting for something. As the sun started to set, Slim glided through “Meet Me In The City,” an ordinary track about love, and delivered a sobering commentary on politics and poverty through “Private Property.” Slim supplied endless energy and emotion throughout his rollercoaster of a setlist, leaving himself strumming back-flat center stage and at other times climbing into the pit. Slim’s palpable personality and artistry provided a purposeful performance — raw, captivating and comforting to the tides of human emotion.
Shades of blue fell upon the 2,500 or so full seats as Slim handed over the amphitheater to a too-long transition. Once Greta took the stage, it became clear that idling was not part of the setlist. The band jumped into the chart-climbing “Built by Nations” and quickly advanced to the existential “Trip the Light Fantastic,” which both considered our political contradictions and mystified our existence as “carbon dancing through time.”
The quartet delivered their Grammy-nominated “Highway Tune,” which pales in comparison to the dynamics of their latest album, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it. Reflecting on their roots, Greta returned to “Safari Song,” complete with an extended drum solo by Daniel Wagner and honored the foundational “Black Smoke Rising” featuring an eclectic solo from guitarist Jake Kiszka.
The first pause was taken over a third of the way through the setlist — Josh welcomed the crowd to Strange Horizons, acknowledging it as a “motto of the human experience.”
Drumbeat became heartbeat and organ chords became heartstrings as Greta rolled into chart-topping “Heat Above,” a tremendous sonic contrast from “Black Smoke Rising” though both tracks evince similar themes of awareness and action.
The duality of Greta’s universe and latest album shined through the setlist — the ebb and flow, the highs and lows of the human condition, known through confusion, curiosity, despair and love were articulated as the audience was challenged by “Broken Bells” and lifted by the ethereal “Light My Love.”
Rejuvenated, Greta returned to the heavier side of The Battle at Garden’s Gate with a cathartic rendition of “Age of Machine.” In an audience of ages eight through 80, even the oldest fans in front of me weren’t sitting down anymore.
Perhaps on a cautionary note, the last track before the encore was “Weight of Dreams,” illustrating a history of indulgence, ignorance and self-destruction. The stage flashed from gold to red to green as eclectic instrumentation seamlessly wove modernism and medieval sentiments met vocals that, refraining from singing on the scale, revolutionized the vocal range.
The gentle conclusive chords of the album’s eight-minute bookend gave way to white-hot screams. The audience was buzzing, warm and alive. Cameras panned the ecstatic crowd, channeling the images to monochrome screens neighboring the stage, capturing inconceivable energy, ever-present though an encore wasn’t promised.
The panoramas refocused on the stage as Greta returned with the reverberative “Stardust Chords” and unabashed Hollywood commentary “When the Curtain Falls.” The band let the music speak most profoundly and explicitly for the entire night, but before heading out, Josh prefaced that the last tune of the setlist, “My Way, Soon,” was an “invitation,” adding something about love, living and legends, pausing before a simple declaration: “fuck fear.”
The crowd was still white-hot, though inevitably dissipating, as security started to usher pit-goers anywhere toward the exit, aided by older fans who wanted to be in bed before midnight.
Catching anyone who would give me a fleeting comment, I was told the experience had left them lifted, enthralled and alive. Though sore-headed and sweaty, I couldn’t help but agree.
Strange Horizons has been created consciously and brilliantly — the performance channeled the duality and ecstasy of The Battle at Garden’s Gate, gently commanding inflection, awe and applause. As much as the audience wanted to exist in this moment forever, we can only hope the memory lasts as long.
I headed for the car, rolled down the windows and muttered “My Way, Soon” on my way back to Michigan, internalizing the grandeur of Greta Van Fleet’s discography, knowing amid the chaos, confusion and wonder of it all, “I’ll bet on a chance if I’ve just got one / I’ll throw out the plans, live with no burden.”