400 Bears, the folk, Americana and blues solo project of guitarist and songwriter Paul Wilkinson, recently released its debut, self-titled LP.
Nine of the 10 tracks were written by Wilkinson and influenced by the subtlety of Mississippi John Hurt, the charisma of Taj Mahal and the omnipresence of Bob Dylan in the songwriter’s life. The 10th song is the traditional “Take This Hammer,” and was recorded in quarantine with each of the players recording their individual parts at home culminating in a nine-minute musical adventure.
According to Wilkinson, “[it’s] proof that maybe dreams do come true. It wound up being a perfect way to close out the record.”
400 Bears was produced by the Grammy-nominated Glenn Ferracone and recorded live at The Music Centre in Chester Springs. The album features a mix of electric and acoustic arrangements and two specific sets of players for each style that enhance and buoy Wilkinson’s songwriting. The electric trio began performing regularly in 2019 and consists of organist Scott Coulter, drummer Josh Steingard (Mason Porter) and Wilkinson singing lead vocals and playing guitar.
Of his bandmates, Wilkinson says, “They both are high-level cats that can take their talents in any direction to serve the tune. We’ve got a great groove going.”
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. For the past 15 years, Wilkinson has been a member of the Philadelphia roots rock mainstay Mason Porter and has performed with Katherine Rondeau, The Rolling Thunder Blues Revue and It’s About The People!
Wilkinson is (mostly) a self-taught guitarist and bassist who’s been playing since the age of 12. Raised in a musical family in North Central Pennsylvania, Wilkinson left his full-time day job in 2015 to pursue music professionally. In addition to his 15-year involvement with Mason Porter, he plays solo shows, duo shows with a rotating cast of talented musicians and has performed at the Philadelphia Folk Fest with several different outfits, including Mason Porter, The Wallace Brothers Band and Brad Hinton’s Band.
With Mason Porter, Wilkinson has opened for the likes of Ralph Stanley, Charlie Daniels, Greensky Bluegrass, New Riders of the Purple Stage, Cabinet, Melvin Seals & JGB and has performed on stages, including Ardmore Music Hall, The Colonial Theater, The Keswick Theater, World Cafe Live and WXPN’s Free at Noon. The band also hosts the Midnight Mountain Music Festival annually in Blakeslee.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Wilkinson taught himself how to play the pedal steel on loan from his uncle.
400 Bears will be performing live in support of its debut as soon as humanly possible. PW recently caught up with Wilkinson to talk about the new music and his career.
|Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you first become interested in music? Who were some of your early influences?
Growing up the youngest of four with lots of music in the house. The floodgates were opened once I started getting into the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. What a conduit to American roots music. There’s a mystery and magic to those early blues/folk field recordings that is inspiring.
Where did the name 400 Bears come from?
Sometimes naming a band can be fun and sometimes impossible. The thought of 400 Bears excites me. It felt right and provides room creatively for wherever the music will want to go.
Under 400 Bears, you recently released your debut, self-titled LP. How did it come together? What’s been the response from your fans, and what are the best ways that they can hear the album?
After Mason Porter’s last album in 2016, we sort of slowed down a bit. I had recently left my full-time day job to pursue music as a career. Hammering down locally mostly for the past four years (214 gigs in 2019), it was time to make a record. Glenn Ferracone started the ball rolling and encouraged me to come to his studio and get to work.
I called on my inspiring musician friends: Brad Hinton, Scott Coulter, Charlie Muench, Josh Steingard, Pat Hughes, and Luke Ferracone) to make the vision a reality. It feels really great to have the record done and hearing from people who they are enjoying it and what they enjoy about it. The album, “400 Bears,” is available on most streaming platforms now – Spotify, Apple Music, etc. CDs and digital downloads are available at 400bears.bandcamp.com.
You wrote nine of the 10 tracks on the album. Where do you find your inspiration for your songs?
I need to provide space for inspiration. A drive, time practicing, reading, writing. You just don’t know when something that works will arrive but something will hopefully pop up after putting in the time/work. This record, a lot of the songs were inspired by one particular line that I had and then fleshed out the song around it.
You’ve been a part of the Philly music scene for more than a decade – as a member of Mason Porter, performing at the Philadelphia Folk Fest, etc. What’s the Philadelphia music scene like these days? Are there any local artists you especially like listening to or performing with?
It has been great to see what musicians have done to adapt. Muscle Tough did a series of “Tough Transmissions” that were really cool! Collaborations from home recordings and videos have been great creative outlets. The Groove Merchants just crushed a live stream from the Sellersville Theatre.
What are your plans after the pandemic passes and some of the restrictions are eased? Live performances? More new music?
Get out and play when it’s possible. Hit the road a bit. Keep writing and recording. Just to keep on keepin’ on.