Perhaps known as much for their flashy fashion as their earworm-inducing music, Grammy-nominated country act Midland performed for a sold-out crowd at The Fillmore Thursday night.
For the first thirty minutes of the show, the charming trio (joined by backing musicians who did much of the heavy lifting), wooed a mixed crowd with energetic renditions of hits from their debut album, On the Rocks.
A packed house of self-styled hipsters in vintage turquoise and cockeyed Stetsons rubbed shoulders with more traditional country music fans – cute as a button blonde girls and their clean-cut, ball cap clad dates (presumably from farther-flung regions of California).
Truth be told, I pulled out a snazzy Western suit, straight outta the 70’s, for the occasion. If there ever was a time and place to show off my retro country steez, a Midland concert fit the bill. These are guys who showed up to the Grammys in loud as hell embroidered suits and feathered cowboy hats, mind you.
With only a few misses in the wardrobe department (white overalls to open for George Strait, ah hem), Midland are fun loving risk takers and fashion industry darlings. According to a profile in Vogue Magazine that came out earlier this year, “The three are redefining country music style by citing the glint, glamour, and peacocking of the past.”
Mark Wystrach, a former soap actor and male model, and the group’s swoon-worthy frontman led the band through their first few numbers with the swagger of a star. As the set wore on, however, the band’s tempo waned, and I began to realize that “peacocking” was the operative word.
It’s unfair to criticize a performer for being a showman, and Wystrach is one, through and through. But somewhere along the way, it seems he got caught up in playing the role of pop star and forgot that we all came to hear him sing. A few on the nose drug references and rehearsed lines in support of the group’s thin origin story repelled instead of endeared. The cadence of the performance was repeatedly interrupted by these wordy interludes. And, coupled with an abundance of cover songs, I began to realize that they didn’t have enough material to fill their set.
Frustrated during one such bout of rambling, I leaned over and commented as much to a Texan standing next to me.
“Well they are pretty new,” he said sincerely. He and his brother had come to SF to see the show, and in his forgiving honesty, hit the nail on the head.
All of the rhinestone jackets and sweaty pectorals in the world couldn’t disguise a band that wasn’t quite ready for the main event. Had their set been shorter, perhaps in support of an artist with more experience and depth of catalog, the show could have been an out and out success.
Critics question Midland’s quick rise to stardom, and self-proclaimed mythology of being a dues-paying, bar band out of Texas. Whether by preexisting industry connections, good looks, or family wealth (the band apparently formed at a wedding in Jackson Hole), I say all routes are fair game. For anyone who thinks working on the set of a low budget television show or standing in front of a camera in your underwear is taking the easy route, I challenge you to guess again.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re a bunch of well connected, good-looking guys, but I bought tickets to Midland because I truly like the music. Sure, it’s formulaic, but they’re conjuring up nostalgia for the music many of us grew up with and have not been able to find in other contemporary acts.
My gripe is not with the band’s sincerity or CV. I truly don’t care where you came from as long as you put on a great show. Midland had the opportunity to knock it out of the park, and in the end, came up short. Whether they were filling time or phoning it in is unclear, but the crowd significantly thinned before the curtain call. Finding an Uber before the rest of the revelers seemed more imperative than watching a young band fumble their Fillmore debut.
Midland’s path to the top is not a conventional one that fits nicely in the liner notes, mostly because they’re not there yet. They’re a hot act with a hit album, but in order to keep the momentum going, they’ll need to summon the hard-working bar band they claim to be.
Main photo by Brandyn Teppen