The Blue Plate Special, a free midday showcase for live music offered five days a week by Knoxville radio station WDVX, has become a venerable tradition in this music-centric city. No matter whether the artists are established or up-and-coming, the program offers no shortage of great performers within the intimate confines of the Knoxville Visitors Center.
This past Saturday (2/26) was no exception. A double bill featuring singer/songwriter Taylor Rae, and renowned bluegrass band Special Consensus, charmed a packed house with an hour-long concert that would be well worth any price of admission. The fact that it was free was, of course, a treat, but in this case, the opportunity to hear some terrific music needed no added incentive.
Rae opened with songs from her debut album, Mad Twenties, and sang them with a clarity and conviction that belies her relative youth. The material reflected both her singing and songwriting skills, and in the process, she wholly enticed the crowd which, in turn, reacted enthusiastically to each of her offerings. Her music follows a tradition established by Joni Mitchell and Carole King, with more than a hint of Allison Krauss to boot. The fact that she shares her songs from a personal perspective helps underscore her allure.
Next, Special Consensus took the small stage and proceeded to launch into Scratch Gravel Road, a song taken from the album of the same name, and a full court press into traditional bluegrass realms. Now celebrating their 47th year, the group — currently consisting of Greg Cahill (banjo and vocals), Dan Eubanks (upright bass and vocals), Greg Blake (guitar and vocals), and newcomer Michael Prewitt (mandolin and vocals) — wasted no time in sharing their combined skills as manifested in their close-knit harmonies and their adept instrumental acuity. On this show, recent former member Rick Faris was filling in for Blake, whose beloved wife Tracey had recently passed away.
Their vocal finesse was ably demonstrated by their shared vocals, and the a cappella intro to the Gospel number, Land Up in the Air, in particular. Their musical superiority was equally apparent, not only in the way they switched off with solos, but also through their expressive and articulate arrangements. Here again, the evidence was in abundance, particularly in the exhilarating instrumental Squirrel Hunters, which serves well as one of several highlights of their abbreviated set.
The familiarity factor played into their performance as well, given that Special Consensus has always been prone to offer up stately standards. In this case, they provided two ready favorites, City of New Orleans and Carolina in the Pines, each of which offered a renewed sense of energy and exhilaration via the band’s effusive arrangements. Nevertheless, the selection that elicited some of the most enthusiastic response was Chicago Barn Dance, a song co-written by Becky Fuller, Missy Raines, and Allison Brown to honor a Windy City music tradition that dates back to 1924. It was noted that Chicago was the birthplace of the band, and when asked if there were any Chicagoans in the crowd, a number of hands went up. Taken from the album of the same name, and released in honor of Special C’s 45th anniversary, it shares a history that’s also intrinsic to the two-time Grammy-nominated ensemble.
That said, there was a another reason to celebrate. It turned out that Saturday marked Cahill’s birthday. The group led a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday for their bandmate who sheepishly looked on.
“It seems like just yesterday,” he responded, noting the fact that birthdays seem to come all too frequently at this point. “And it’s like it was just the day before and the day before that.”
That ought not come as any surprise. Despite the fact that the band has had its share of personnel changes over the years, it remains as vital as ever given Cahill’s leadership from the very beginning. It’s also worth noting that the band’s name was inspired by a series of books written by Carlos Castenada, who used the adage Special Consensus to describe the state of being where the spiritual and physical find their connection. Likewise, with a band being a consensus of musicians providing performance and inspiration, the reason for the handle quickly becomes clear.
Given their performance for WDVX this past Saturday, that fact was affirmed.