We all know that bluegrass music is most often associated with Kentucky, but throughout its history, several other regions around the United States have laid claim to their own special role in the founding of our favorite music. The Washington DC/Baltimore area, with acts such as the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, or Bristol, TN/VA, with its claim to be the “Birthplace of Country Music,” are two of the most well-known. The new album from Special Consensus, however, pays tribute to a perhaps lesser-known bluegrass scene – Chicago.
Chicago Barn Dance, recently released on Compass Records, is an homage to Special C’s home base, where band leader and banjo player Greg Cahill co-founded the band in 1975. The songs all connect back to the city, whether written about it or written by artists who lived and played there. The title track kicks things off on a cheerful, celebratory note, in an homage to another noted piece of Chicago musical history, the WLS National Barn Dance. Penned by Becky Buller, Alison Brown, and Missy Raines, it’s a fun ride through the background of the famous radio show, listing some of the more notable musicians who played it, while also nicely setting the 1930s and ‘40s scene of its heyday. The clogging at the end is also a nice touch and a nod to Bill Monroe’s time as a square dancer for the National Barn Dance.
East Chicago Blues specifically focuses on Monroe, telling the story of his move from rural Kentucky to work in Chicago’s refineries. Written and sung by alt-country singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks (who is also a former member of Special Consensus), it’s a gritty, bluesy take on the “you can’t go home again” song. Blues fans should also enjoy the swingy cover of Louis Armstrong’s I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music, which translates Armstrong’s jazz to bluegrass via inventive bass and banjo, and excellent lead vocals from Rick Faris.
Faris offers a strong, clear lead on several other songs throughout the album. Lake Shore Drive, from Chicago band Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, is a laid-back, breezy number that pulls from the original’s 1970s folk-rock groove. It perfectly captures the feel of a long drive on a favorite road. Sweet Home Chicago picks up the tempo quite a bit, changing the Robert Johnson blues standard to a barn-burner of a bluegrass number. Then there’s the toe-tapping Looking Out My Back Door, a hit for John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, which Faris gives a good blend of earnestness and fun.
The musicianship throughout the album is just top-notch, with the top candidate probably being the instrumental cover of Frank Sinatra’s My Kind of Town. Twin banjos are sometimes an instant no for me, but Cahill and Alison Brown do an excellent job here. There are also twin fiddles from Mike Barnett and Patrick McAvinue, adding an extra layer of “let me rewind this and listen just one more time” to the tune. On the vocal side of things, the a capella Gospel track, Won’t That Be a Happy Time, is a showcase for the band’s control and harmonies.
Special Consensus is celebrating its 45th anniversary as a band this year, and the group truly just keeps getting better. Cahill’s banjo is as solid and as imaginative as ever, while Faris (guitar), Dan Eubanks (bass), and Nate Burie (mandolin) round out the lineup with excellent playing and singing. The band’s sound and arrangements are distinctive in a modern bluegrass scene that sometimes over-relies on a traditional country feel.
Add Chicago Barn Dance to your “to buy” list – you won’t regret it.