This is a pleasant surprise from a local artist to this Pennsylvanian-based writer. Normally these kinds of efforts are hit or miss at best but Paul Wilkinson, longtime guitarist for the West Chester-based roots rock band Mason Porter, debut solo album , 400 Bears, impresses from the opening notes and easy glide of “Borderline.” He shows a real gift for melody on that opener and some clever wordplay in “Holy Place,” just three tracks in. Urged on by a Grammy-nominated producer and with help from some talented friends, Wilkinson lays out a broad swath of roots music with nine original tunes before concluding with a nine-minute cover of the traditional “Take This Hammer,” featuring the that same producer, Glenn Ferracone (2010 Grammy-nominated contemporary jazz album Never Can Say Goodbye: The Music of Michael Jackson), on drums and his son, Luke Ferracone, on electric guitar.
Wilkinson traces most of his love for music to his parents’ record collection, saying, “The records my parents had around- Dylan and Grateful Dead -were a gateway into all kinds of stuff. All of a sudden you’re listening to Merle Haggard and that’s blowing your mind, then Garcia/Grisman, to Doc Watson and Bill Monroe…” The songs, he said, incorporate the subtlety of Mississippi John Hurt, the charisma of Taj Mahal and the overarching influence of Bob Dylan in his life. We get straight-forward roots in the opener and “Memories,” a healthy dose of twang in “Holy Place” and a and rambling twang akin to bluegrass in “Take It Slow.” “Cold Situation” brings raw, slow burning blues.
The album features a mix of electric and acoustic arrangements, with a separate accompaniment for each style. The electric trio consists of organist Scott Coulter, drummer Josh Steingard (Mason Porter) and Wilkinson singing lead vocals and playing guitar. The acoustic lineup features Pat Hughes (formerly of Mason Porter) on drums, Brad Hinton (Wilkinson’s frequent duo partner) on dobro and Charlie Muench (Joe Hillman Band, The Stray Birds) on bass guitar.
Wilkinson, a full-time musician who has kept busy despite the constraints of the pandemic, has been with Mason Porter for 15 years but also plays solo shows, duo shows with a rotating cast and has performed at the Philadelphia Folk Fest, with Mason Porter The Wallace Brothers Band and Brad Hinton’s Band; and at the Black Potatoe Fest with Mason Porter. He’s also a member of Highway 61 Revival, a Dylan tribute band that had performed Dylan’s birthday shows the past seven years. The group produced an EP of covers, Highway 61 Revival (Volume 1), earlier this year.
“80’s Mercedes” is a punchy rock song, which shows the versatility of Wilkinson’s approach and influence of the Grateful Dead on his music. The organ-fueled “Small Town” has some similar echoes (Garcia-like guitar lines) but moves in a rockabilly direction. Here, as he does throughout the liners, he cites a phrase from his lyrics – “bars on every corner help you on your way down, in a small town.” Wilkinson takes his cues from Dylan with a barrage of lightning-fire lyrics in “Annie Hall,” including this one – “…we build plastic houses that look alike on top of dead soldiers that died alike.”
“Good Bear” is an instrumental depicting the fine interplay of Wilkinson’s acoustic guitar with Hinton’s dobro. The traditional “Take This Hammer,” what he describes as “a perfect way to close out the record,” was recorded in quarantine, with each of the players recording their parts at home and sharing the files, which may partially explain its nine minute length. All other tracks were recorded in studio.
.As for the title, Wilkinson, who is sometimes called “The Bear,” is a fan of the creatures and landed on the name just out of fun. This album is now available on Bandcamp and is well worth seeking out. Personally, given his proximity, yours truly is looking forward to hearing Wilkinson and his band, whether it be electric or acoustic, play live.
- Jim Hynes