If you didn’t know that Mason Porter’s new EP was titled “Heart Of The Mountains,” if you didn’t see the bucolic album cover complete with a bear strumming an acoustic guitar, and if you didn’t know that the Philadelphia-area bluegrass/folk/Americana act was collaborating with the National Parks Service, which is celebrating its centennial, you’d still sense the deep-woods, open-road theme the group has embraced simply by listening. And that’s a good thing, because “Heart Of The Mountains,” while only six songs long, is a fully immersive experience that will leave you wanting to throw your tent and sleeping bag in the trunk and get away from it all, even if just for a weekend.
The band – Joe D’Amico (mandolin, guitar, vocals), Tim Ceflo (upright bass, vocals), Paul Wilkinson (guitar, vocals), Evan Smoker (drums) and Sarah Larsen (violin) – opens the proceedings with the title track, an upbeat and breezy number in the vein of Railroad Earth. Larsen deploys some deft fiddle stops for rhythmic effect before the well-crafted bridge, but she and her bandmates use their chops to serve the song, rather than vice versa – which is quite refreshing and easier said than done in the “jamgrass” genre.
The yearning “See America” starts as a plaintive folk tune but catches fire, igniting into a full-blown and free-flowing bluegrass romp. There’s some hot picking here, but Mason Porter has a knack for keeping it breezy, leaving a lot of elbow room between the notes and avoiding any pileups. “Oh, I want to see America/ Far across the mountains to the California sea,” the lyrics declare, and the musical accompaniment drives home the sentiment.
“Box Of Answers” is gorgeously melancholic, evoking a singer/songwriter like Gerry Rafferty more than anything in the New Americana songbook. With its pretty vocal harmonies, the minor-key tune is one of the best on the EP. The traditional “Shenandoah,” meanwhile, is so sparse, so airy, you can hear either a boot tapping a wooden floor, or is it a hand whacking the body of an acoustic guitar?
Despite the thematic thrust of “Heart Of The Mountains,” the songs stand on their own, and musical diversity prevents any sense of sameness from setting in. “You And I,” for example, is a bit of a departure, with a bit of an indie rock flavor. It’s essentially a love song, but the target of the singer’s affections is not just the paramour, but also nature itself: “Sleep under the stars/ Knowin’ just how small we are.”
The release’s last song, “Yosemite,” is probably its most unique, as an intro of big, broad drums and crashing cymbals and sweeping violin, a fitting tribute to the sprawling titular park, careens into a dance beat with driving guitar, mandolin and fiddle sharing the duty of pushing the melodies. The track eventually falls into a more traditional bluegrass feel, taking the listener on a rollicking excursion not unlike a weekend in the mountains.
Mason Porter has drawn notice for its well-received Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan nights in Philly, but its original material is top-shelf, and with six releases under its belt has established it as the total package, both on stage and in the studio.
Mason Porter will play an EP-release show Friday June 3, at The Ardmore Music Hall (23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, PA) with Frog Holler and Chris Grunwald and The Slow Response.