Midland Turns L.A.’s Dormant Palomino Club Into a Honky-Tonk Brigadoon

Too much to ask they stick around and save the club, as house band?

Timothy Norris / Courtesy Big Machine Records

Would it be too much to ask Midland to give up its burgeoning-country-star status and move west to become the humble house band at a newly reopened Palomino club in L.A.? It doesn’t seem a lot to beseech for a good cause, however unlucrative it might be for the group’s fortunes and fame.

The famed Palomino is turning out to be Los Angeles’ own cowpunk Brigadoon, belatedly coming back to life when the city and scene least expect it. The epicenter for California’s country and roots-rock scene from the ‘50s forward closed its doors in 1995, yet the guts — or at least walls — of the North Hollywood nightspot remain intact, many years into its transformation into a less legendary banquet hall and adult day care center. And so transforming it back for a night proves to be not that insurmountable a task, even if folding tables have to replace the former bar-top, and even if there is a bit more effort involved in getting the Valley Relics Museum to haul the famous neon sign out and fire it up in the adjoining parking lot.

That’s nothing compared to the effort it’s taken to generate an act that is achieving country stardom in the late 2010s that you could also imagine having credibly played and slayed with the alt-country crowd that packed the Palomino during its 1980s peak. That is a Venn diagram with an intersection that consists of exactly one group: Midland. (All right, you could make a case for Jon Pardi, too, although he seems less likely to put on a Nudie’s-style jacket and then doff it for a tank top midway through a set than Midland’s singer.)

In the kind of show that gives publicity stunts a good name, Midland took over the Lankershim Blvd. space Tuesday night for what will almost certainly be the space’s most high-profile revivification any time soon. This Brigadoon already returned from the twilight zone into the foggy NoHo heather once, 14 months ago, when a seemingly one-time revival show brought veteran L.A. scenesters Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores, James Intveld and half of Lone Justice back into the whitewashed space that had some locals misting up at the idea that you can go home and go two-stepping again. It’s scheduled for one more such revival, on Nov. 16, when local rockabilly hero Intveld is hosting his own 60th birthday party there, with Flores and Dale Watson joining him. (Tickets for that show are sold out.)

For the Midland show, the Big Machine people had wisely not just invited the industry and press but sold tickets to the rank and file, to come hear music where Rank & File once ruled. Watching the shoulder-clasping young couples and Dos Equis-sucking singles on the dance floor (one difference from the vintage Palomino was the clearing out of tables), it was hard for a Palomino veteran to wonder: what would it take to actually bring honky-tonking back to L.A. full-time, at a place larger than a shoebox like Culver City’s Cinema Bar, but namely, at a big-name-accommodating, 400-capacity club like this one? And given the low number of cool country acts who could come through often enough to support that kind of booking policy again, the answer seemed clear enough: Midland could simply pack up from Austin, sever ties with Nashville and revive the Pal full-time, foregoing Mediabase bullets and industry tip sheets to become the most tip-generating band in L.A. history.

A cowgirl can dream. Anyway, Brigadude was fun for the two hours or so it lasted, with the consolation that Midland will be taking this kind of one-night time warp-age to other cities that need it as much as the Valley. The group’s recent sophomore album, “Let It Roll,” provided a head rush of a neo-vintage good time that finds its most natural live home in a slightly seedy confined space, but which shouldn’t be begrudged its chance to turn theaters and arenas into dives for a night.

“This is the smallest stage we’ve played on in a long time. But it feels so f—ing good,” swore singer Mark Wystrach, humblebragging. Bassist Cameron Duddy had a bit more second- if not first-hand knowledge of the place, pointing out that “I did grow up 15 minutes from here” (which, given L.A. traffic, must mean within a half-mile radius) and that his uncle had graduated from the nearest-by high school (“He’s very high right now, so don’t approach him,” Duddy warned). In the spirit of the open bar, the bassist said they were going to “introduce our band before we get too drunk to remember their names.” (Only three of the six players on stage are permanent members, in case you’re wondering just how drunk that would be.)

Lazy loaded image
Timothy Norris / Courtesy Big Machine Rec

Duddy is very much into statistics, apparently. “To my left, the sixth most handsome man in the band,” he said, referring to Wystrach. Earlier, he’d said, “Without further ado, we’d like to play our second most popular drinking song.” There was then some further ado as they discussed the implications of that. “Technically, Cameron, every song’s a drinking song when you’re drinking,” Wystrach pointed out, quoting the chorus of the song they were about to play. “I’m just going on Spotify numbers,” protested Duddy, bringing everyone back into the bummer that is the Palomino-free present for just a moment.

There’s a too-good-to-be-true aspect to what Midland does that can make even fans of what they’re pulling off slightly wary: Are all these drinking and cheating songs —and the ‘70s hair and west-coast Western-wear that goes with them — some kind of pastiche we should be suspicious of, as opposed to something that sprung spontaneously and unaffectedly out of young men’s hearts, groins and livers? These types of questions tend to occur before you dig further into an album as cleverly written and fully accomplished as “Let It Roll,” which has the effect, rather like that open bar, of blurring concerns. However this genre revivalism was reverse-engineered, it’s firing on many cylinders, and it reaffirms that it isn’t sheerly nostalgia powering what makes this music so appealing. Adultery, alcohol and steel guitar really do provide a superior blank slate for writing that elicits chuckles, sighs and hollers from an audience that’s exactly at the halfway point between smart and blitzed.

Speaking of sheets to the wind, there was one other critical difference between the one-nighter Palomino revival and the club’s original incarnation: discounted Lyfts for all. The country-rock talent pool may not seem great enough to put a revived Palomino back in business full-time (assuming Midland does not take up our altruistic suggestion), but it’s possible increased bar tabs in the age of carefree ride-sharing could almost make up the difference.