A founding member of Mason Porter, Wilkinson spent the last fifteen years as a fixture in that Americana-ish jam band, which Rolling Stone included in 2016 in their list of “10 New Country artists you need to know.” In addition, he has played at a variety of venues in a duo with harmonica player extraordinaire Bob Beach, a partnership that resulted in the 2019 release of the folky “Candyman.”
On his debut solo album Wilkinson stretches out under the moniker “400 Bears,” backed by a top-notch group of Philadelphia area musicians that includes Brad Hinton on dobro and lap steel, Scott Coulter on organ, Charlie Muench on bass, the father-son team of Glenn and Luke Ferracone on drums and electric guitar respectively, as well as Pat Hughes and Philly’s omnipresent sideman Josh Steingard, also on drums.
Wilkinson has been described as “an artist steeped in the tradition of American music” and cites the influences of such notable figures as Mississippi John Hurt, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. Reflecting on his home-brewed musical education by way of his parents’ music collection, Wilkinson notes: “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…”
On “400 Bears” Wilkinson wears these diverse influences on his sleeve. In order of appearance, they include the Grateful Dead on “Borderline.” Time Out of Mind-era Dylan (though I hear some Santana in there, too) on “Memories”, Merle Haggard on “Holy Place,” some Doc Watson and Bob Dylan in equal measures on “Take It Slow,” and bits of Taj Mahal and Mississippi Fred McDowell on “Cold Situation.”
The Dead, along with the two aforementioned blues influences and perhaps a bit of roots rock via the likes of Commander Cody or NRBQ, combine to flavor “80s Mercedes” and “Small Town,” while Dylan at his most light-hearted (or perhaps John Prine?” seems to inspire the humorous romp “Annie Hall.” Mississippi Fred’s rustic slide guitar style evinces itself on the solo instrumental “Good Bear,” and the traditional tune “Take This Hammer” bears the markings of gospel-inflected country music in the tradition of, say, the Carter Family.
This showcasing of influences is for the most part a very fine thing. It allows Wilkinson and team to incorporate a wide range of musical colors and accents, which keeps the album feeling lively and fresh. Some highlights for me include:
There’s also plenty of joyful ensemble playing, and the production is clean and solid throughout, with the engineering, recording, mixing and mastering all handled by Glenn Ferracone.
To my ears, the album gets stronger as it goes, with the second half’s numbers really shining. Those last five songs, it seems to me, do a better job of successfully integrating Wilkinson’s influences into a unique blend, whereas some of the earlier numbers seem like more faithfullly straightforward homages to his musical heroes.
Which is not a bad thing, mind you*, it’s just that if you’re aiming to break out as an artist you’ve got to bring something new to the table, if only a uniquely unexpected combination of influences. For the most part “400 Bears” does that, and impressively at times. I’m hoping Wilkinson will push his music in a more original direction going forward, though, as I suspect it could result in a truly magical melange with some real staying power.
More info on 400 Bears is available at 400bears.com and can be purchased at:
*Heck, I’ve been doing the same thing by producing a series of covers during the pandemic. (See http://www.mackhooligan.com for some examples.)
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