By Steve Houk
What’s a key part of folk and bluegrass music? Bringing people together. You sit close, you lean in, you smell the bonfire and taste the whiskey, and make raw, beautiful music on sometimes no more than a guitar, perhaps a mandolin, often an upright bass, and sometimes the scraping beat of a washboard. It’s great music. But it’s the communal nature that gets everyone dialed in.
Pennsylvania’s Mason Porter is a perfect example of a successful 21st century bluegrass-folk-rock band, a close-knit group of buds hitting traditional folk-bluegrass buttons while also tossing in a hit of country rock energy and power for good measure. They are one of a number of regionally/nationally popular bands right now that love to take you back, while also bringing you forward. And thankfully for the recurring traditions and innate camaraderie of this music, it makes for a winning combination for these guys.
“It seems like it’s cycled back, which is the great thing with the folk music tradition, it is timeless,” says band co-founder and guitarist Paul Wilkinson. “It might cycle out for a few years here and there, but it’s gonna cycle back. Because there’s nothing more basic than people sitting around playing music. Like around the fireplace and sharing songs. And that’s what comes through from this folksy Americana genre, that kind of camraderie. Just hanging out, just trying to make peace with the wonder and awe of things.”
All the guys had their own musical influences, and as a kid, Wilkinson’s parents played a lot of Dylan and Dead which, after a period of resistance, helped open the door to what he and his mates would eventually make their living playing.
“We’d have to listen to Bob Dylan to clean the house, you know, so I had started with a distaste for Bob Dylan and all that music,” Wilkinson said. “Probably in my early teens, it finally clicked and I was like, wait a minute, there’s something goin’ on here. So through the records my parents had around, which were alot of Dylan, and also Grateful Dead stuff, which is a great gateway band into all kinds of stuff, ‘cuz all of a sudden you’re listening to Merle Haggard and that’s blowing your mind, then the Garcia/Grisman discs started coming out, and then I’d start listening to Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, the real bluegrass guys. So through those areas with Dylan and the Dead, I was introduced to the whole American songbook pretty much, I guess.”
Mason Porter formed in West Chester PA in 2006 when Wilkinson (from North Central PA), Joe D’Amico (closer to Philly) and Tim Celfo (a Jersey boy), had been jamming together and apart and found they had shared musical interests, so they decided to make a go of it. The trio has stuck together ever since, carving out a wide niche of popularity in and around West Chester that’s now expanded across the state and beyond to include stops at festivals and even occasional gigs in the Big Apple.
“Me and Joe were playing a little bit with a couple other guys,” Wilkinson said, “and then we’re like, hey, let’s get an upright bass player, and Tim was in town so we called him up. We played a gig and then stuck around and it became just the three of us, and we’ve stuck together since. It was the right time and place for all of us. We would up being good musical friends and friends in general. Been together going on nine years, the core trio of us.”
During their nine years together, Mason Porter has put out a couple records before truly hitting their stride with 2014’s excellent Home For The Harvest, a record that resoundingly put on display both traditional folkgrass as well as the more dynamic aspects and songwriting chops of the band.
“Joe’s the most prolific songwriter of the three of us, always writing something, always has something going. Tim has a song here and there, and I’ve had a couple. I think it had really been two or three years since our prior record, and Home For The Harvest really got back to the basics, some nice acoustic arrangements, with a drummer in the studio, and the harmonies, it’s real song-centric. We felt had a great record. The one song “That’s Alright By Me” on there got picked up by XM Sirius Coffee House, they started playing that alot, so that did help us to the next step a little bit by getting that radio recognition.”
Mason Porter’s most recent release is the 5-song EP Key To The Skyway, recorded in Philadelphia, which further illustrates the power of this talented band. How they weave the modern with the old school, it’s impressive. Rounding out their always stellar live shows these days are the superb Sara Larsen on fiddle and Kevin Killen on drums, who both also contributed to the EP in studio. So why just release an EP, after the success of the full-length prior record?
“It was more a matter of logistics, and resources available. We had the extra musicians from Home For The Harvest and we wanted to get something of out that, and we had new material. We thought, let’s try to do less songs and get it out to more people. Do more with less. Overall, now we’ve flushed out the sonic landscape if you will with the keys and the fiddle added. It adds a boost of energy and sound.”
In addition to their contemporary folkgrassrock sound that continues to develop and grow even stronger with every release and every live show, it comes down to that ever-elusive harmony that has kept this hard-working band churning forward into their next decade. And just by staying together this long, they’ve proven that the camraderie inherent in playing this timeless music is as important as anything.
“When the respect for each other and the music is there, I mean, being able to stay together for a few years is a feat in itself I think. When we got together, we said, ”Hey if we stay together, that’s more than half the battle.’ Alot of great bands get together and do something great, and then they fall out with each other. We’ve been able to hang in there, one of our strengths is camaraderie with each other.”