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400 Bears: 400 Bears
by George Graham
(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/6/2021)
Since the commercial pop music world has come to be dominated by electronically-based artists and hip-hop influence, what used to be mainstream rock, country, soul, and blues have been lumped under the rubric “roots music” or Americana. There are the different strains coming from those different genres, but not a lot of current bands mix up the styles, with many of them trying instead to be as authentic as possible to an original style. This week we have an interesting project that includes influences of earlier generations of rock, plus some occasional country, blues and a little folk music. It’s the new project called 400 Bears, which is both the album and group name.
400 Bears is basically the work of Philadelphia area musician Paul Wilkinson, who was for fifteen years a key part of the well-regarded roots rock band Mason Porter, who have been known for bringing bluegrass influence into their music. Wilkinson enlists some different musicians for 400 Bears, and draws on more of his influences. He credits his parents’ record collection which introduced him to Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Doc Watson, and Bill Monroe. The new album incorporates some of those influences, including a little bluegrass and country influence with a prominent Dobro, but there is also a good helping of blues, a solo track with a folky acoustic guitar accompaniment, a traditional folk song given a kind of spacey jam setting, and a song with an African American Gospel groove.
The tasteful band on the album includes Scott Coulter on keyboards, including organ prominently, Brad Hinton on Dobro and pedal steel guitar, Charlie Muench on bass, and three drummers alternating, including Mason Porter drummer Josh Steingard, and a veteran of our Homegrown Music series, Glenn Ferracone, who also co-produced, recorded and mixed the album. Leader Wilkinson is heard on guitar and did lead vocals.
Though the songs are not particularly profound lyrically, the songwriting is high quality, and the group is versatile in the way that allows them to switch influences from one track to the next, which also keeps the album interesting.
400 Bears opens with a track that is typical of the high quality rootsy material the band has to offer, Borderline. There’s almost a country beat, but Scott Coulter’s organ evokes Gospel. <<>>
The transition from that track to the next is a good example of the album’s diverse sound. Memories is a minor-key slightly jazzy influenced blues, that’s a definite highlight on the album. <<>>
For there, the record jumps into honky-tonk country for Holy Place which reflects on home, and life in general. <<>>
Wilkinson and 400 Bears serve a straight-out slow blues tune on the track Cold Situation, which is notable for its acoustic instrumentation. Lyrically it’s a typical lost-love blues song, but it’s nicely done. <<>>
Back in the early days of rock and roll, for artists like Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys cars were a favorite song topic. 400 Bears has a fun automotive ditty called 80s Mercedes, which instead of being given a rock & roll beat, is done as a great, danceable boogaloo. <<>>
Wilkinson pays tribute to life outside the big city in a tune called Small Town which is an example of the clever stylistic mix on the album. It combines a twangy country-influenced guitar with the Gospel-flavored organ. <<>>
A further departure is the track called Annie Hall, which Wilkinson performs in a solo acoustic setting. <<>>
400 Bears also features a solo resonator guitar instrumental called Good Bear which is a bit reminiscent of the style of Leo Kottke. It’s another nice part of the mosaic that is this album. <<>>
400 Bears the album ends with the traditional folk song Take This Hammer, and the mood turns to the atmospheric with spacey steel guitar work. <<>> Later on, the 9 minute track becomes a kind of psychedelic jam. <<>><
400 Bears, the eponymous album by the project called 400 Bears, is essentially the first solo album by Paul Wilkinson of the band Mason Porter. It’s a high quality and rather eclectic mix of the components spanning the roots music world, classic rock, folk, blues, a bit of Gospel and a soup<ç<on of psychedelia. It’s all very tastefully done, and the variety and flow of the album makes for more interesting and engaging listening.<
The album earns a grade “A” for audio quality, with a clean, crisp mix, with nice clarity and better-than-average dynamic range.
The roots rock scene is certainly thriving, in an era when mainstream commercial pop has diverged so far from the music’s founding influences. Paul Wilkinson and his 400 Bears project is the epitome of doing roots rock right.
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