On the Edge: Mason Porter

Band of colors: (from left) Paul Wilkinson, Tim Celfo and Joe D’Amico
photo courtesy Mason Porter

One of the most refreshing trends in music has to be the return of acoustic-based bands. Country-tinged acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers have proven that you needn’t have rock guitars and heavy drums to cause a stir. It’s a dogma that Philadelphia-based group Mason Porter has subscribed to since its formation in 2006—well before The Lumineers were shouting “ho” and “hey” on the radio.

“Progressive acoustic folk” is how Joe D’Amico, mandolin player/guitarist/vocalist for Mason Porter, describes the current scene, as well as the sound of his trio. Rounded out by Tim Celfo on bass and vocals and Paul Wilkinson on guitar and vocals, Mason Porter possesses a distinctly bluegrass feel, but Joe is hesitant to label the band as such.

“I try to stay away from the word ‘bluegrass,’ because bluegrass is very, very specific of what it is and what it isn’t,” he says. “We take our inspiration from the bluegrass world and the country world, and there’s a lot of blues and folk influences, too, as well as anything that is happening in indie rock. As a songwriter, I feel like whatever comes in, comes out.”

Shades of those genres all pop up on Mason Porter’s latest album, the pristine Home for the Harvest, a collection of songs that often calls to mind the more country-leaning fare of the Grateful Dead. “Back to Where We Started From” showcases deft mandolin work. “The Water Rolls Away” is a shuffling traveler’s lament. And strumming ballad “Let Me In” could have been an outtake from the Dead’s American Beauty album.

One of Mason Porter’s influences, Old Crow Medicine Show, drew a similar comparison when Old Crow leader Ketch Secor heard Mason Porter’s 2008 debut EP. Joe passed the band a CD following an Old Crow gig in Philly.

“Ketch wrote us and said it reminded him of Workingman’s Dead,” Joe says of the Grateful Dead’s 1970 release. “I was kind of blown away.”

Along with the Dead, the band cites Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt and especially Bob Dylan as inspirations. “If you’re arguing about what you’re going to listen to in the van, Bob Dylan has something that everybody digs,” Joe says, laughing.

Paying close attention to such sounds of the past has helped Mason Porter plot their future. Yet the guys have also looked to other types of art for inspiration, especially visual. 

The Home for the Harvest album cover is a patchwork quilt from the 1840s that resides in Pennsylvania’s Chester County Historical Society.

“It’s a pretty famous piece,” says Joe. “Well, as famous as a local quilt can get.” As well as the perfect metaphor for Mason Porter’s sum-of-its-parts sound.

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