Country trio Midland rode into NRG Stadium and set the tone for RodeoHouston 2020 in front of a respectable 56,188 ticket holders, harking back to seasons of yesteryear when country music ruled the old Astrodome just next door.
The last two years at RodeoHouston, the city’s biggest annual music event, were an embarrassment of riches with Garth Brooks and George Strait playing respective years, a combined 250 million album sales and record setting attendance figures between them. So when the RodeoHouston 2020 lineup was first announced, it was not hard to feel a bit of a letdown.
The thing is, the RodeoHouston entertainment talent booking team rarely misses, and the Dripping Springs, Texas band completely makes sense as this year’s opener. The trio, comprised of old friends, Cameron Duddy, Jess Carson, and Mark Wystrach, play songs that could easily fit next to RodeoHouston performers from 20 to 30 years ago.
Their two full-length albums, 2017’s On the Rocks and 2019’s Let It Roll, recall the best of old school Country Music Television with a welcome dose of vibrant Eagles harmonies — which makes sense with the band’s time living in California before they decided to give country music a go.
Midland songs are rich with country music history and all the clichés that go with it, as if they were meant to be played on AM C&W radio stations in that Permian Basin town. But the trio does those clichés very well and their biggest hits feature songwriting topics that make the genre great: hard living, too much boozing, broken hearts, and carousing on a hot southern Saturday night. Throw in some modern day hipster cowboy threads and semi-ironic mustaches, and the old sound is new again, a fresh respite from all the commercial country pop tunes that have saturated the market since Garth Brooks donned a cowboy hat.
Set opener “Playboys” had the former actor Wystrach channeling the smoldering good looks of a young Billy Ray Cyrus. The band came out with the requisite rodeo gear — brightly colored sequined jackets, shirts optional of course, bringing a retro pastiche to their upbeat honky tonk. On the Rocks highlight “Burn Out” slowed things down to a waltz, a song that wouldn’t be out of place on George Strait’s Pure Country soundtrack.
“We’re a 21st century honky tonk American band,” Wystrach said before the song of the same name. A little trebly on the vocals, he redeemed himself on an ascending vocal bridge breakdown. “Cheatin’ Songs” brought on those Dwight Yoakum comparisons with an easy vocal flow, sharp Texas twang, and layered melodies. Of course, the message of infidelity which runs through decades of country tunes brought it home. Follow up, “Mr. Lonely,” was a lost CMT classic from 1992 featuring some nice on-stage chemistry between the three of players.
“Fast Hearts in Slow Towns” recalled peak ’70s Don Henley songwriting with some gorgeous harmonies. Dedicated to “all the families out there,” “Electric Rodeo” brought up the best ghosts of Glen Campbell’s slow burning torch songs. “Make a Little,” easily one of the band’s best songs, was played with a sightly faster tempo, morphing it into a Garth Brooks swing. It was a highlight of the night.
Much like another geographically named country act, Alabama, “Eastbound and Down” rollicked, and made fine use of two points on the center stage star with players rising into the air for some decent guitar solos. “Roll Away” featured a fine vocal turn from electric rhythm guitarist Jess Carson. “Drinkin’ Problem,” the band’s biggest hit, flashed us back to the ’80s, Wystrach hamming it up with a wink and a nod to the camera and a slightly awkward shimmy that fit the theme of the song.
“We are just three friends that starting playing in stanky little bars that you would never let your kids into," Wystrach told the crowd, alluding to how far the 2018 ACM New Vocal Group of the Year had come before kicking into a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” with bassist Cameron Duddy taking a turn on vocals and drums.
The night ended with the quiet “14 Gears” under the glow of beautiful lighting design by the ever professional LD Systems crew in charge of the RodeoHouston audio and visual spectacle. For some reason, the band rolled out on a pickup to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as the stadium had filed out, but by then, Midland had delivered the goods.
If there was any criticism to be had, something many young bands and first time RodeoHouston acts struggle with, is that the players could have made use of the full stage and interacted with the stage more. It felt as if they weren’t quite sure how to consistently use the space throughout the entirety of the show. Seeing as this was likely one of the biggest shows Midland played in their career up to this point, it’s something they’ll definitely grow into as their audience grows.
Overall, the performance reminded us that the increasingly diverse RodeoHouston's go-to bread and butter will always be big sounding country acts that can bring the hits and provide a solid hour-plus set to cap off a fun evening at NRG Stadium.
“Fast Hearts in Slow Towns”
“Out of Sight”
“Make a Little”
“Eastbound and Down”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (Tom Petty cover and the Heartbreakers cover)