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Midland turns the Tito’s tent into an early-afternoon honky-tonk at ACL Fest

Peter Blackstock

“I wasn’t expecting this many people to get up this early,” Midland frontman Mark Wystrach marveled to a sizable crowd that mostly filled the Tito’s tent at 12:30 p.m. for the country band’s debut at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Given the recent fast rise of the band’s hit single “Drinkin’ Problem” on mainstream country radio, though, the strong turnout wasn’t all that surprising.

Named after a West Texas oil town, the trio is actually based outside of Austin in Dripping Springs. They moved there a couple of years ago after cutting their teeth as musicians largely in Los Angeles, where bassist Cameron Duddy had played in separate bands with both Wystrach and guitarist Jess Carson, Midland’s primary songwriter.

Recent online hubbub about the band’s “authenticity” as country musicians is a nonstarter. One listen to “Drinkin’ Problem” and the rest of their recent debut album “On the Rocks” verifies their honky-tonk bona fides, regardless of Duddy’s background as a pop music video producer. Wystrach’s lead vocals have a classic smooth twang that rivals Dwight Yoakam’s, while his bandmates provide sterling harmonies and solid honky-tonk instrumental support. Being raised country has never been a prerequisite for playing country.

Those at ACL Fest didn’t seem to care about that anyway. The crowd appeared to be a mix of fans who got on board with Midland early and curiosity-seekers who’ve heard some of the buzz and probably caught “Drinkin’ Problem” on the radio. Befitting the just-past-noon time slot, Midland’s set was fairly laid-back, more of a mellow festival greeting than a crazy barroom barnburner.

But the songs were almost uniformly strong, and that’s the main takeaway with these guys so far. They emphasize the vocals and the melodies: Many times, the instrumentation fell away to allow their trio harmonies to shine, and the volume in the tent never went into overdrive. It’s the right call, as Midland’s strength is more their musicality than raw energy, though you get the sense they could kick up some dust at midnight in a dance hall too.

It’s worth noting that they had a solid three-man supporting cast behind them. Austin pedal steel player Kim Deschamps, a Canadian transplant, has major credits with Canada roots bands Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies as well as local troubadour Charlie Robison.  Drummer Robbie Crowell also hails from Canada, and supplemental guitarist Luke Cutchen seemed to have a small but vocal cheering-section in the crowd, perhaps partly due to his history with local instrument stores Strait Music and Musicmakers.

Midland’s lone misfire was a well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying stab at Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Covers of the late Petty’s tunes have been de rigueur during both weekends of ACL Fest, for good reason. But Midland’s effort came off as perfunctory, ending too soon and lacking the drama so vital to that particular Petty selection. It’s a shame they didn’t go to the well of one of the songwriters they later cited as inspirations, including Gary Stewart, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. A run through “L.A. Freeway” could’ve lit the fest up at that hour and furthered the band’s ties to their adopted home turf.

Still, when they closed the set with “Drinkin’ Problem,” the song most of those in attendance were waiting to hear — you could tell by how many cell phones popped up as soon as Wystrach launched into the first line — the focus was back on the simple matter that these guys know how to write, and deliver, memorable original material. The subject matter of “Drinkin’ Problem” may be overtold in country music, but Midland’s melodic groove is so catchy that it hardly matters. “Call it a problem, I call it a solution,” Wystrach sang, and most of those in the crowd sang with him, because the song is that good, plain and simple.