When you’re someone who listens to as much bluegrass as I do, it takes a really impressive musical moment to truly surprise you. That happened to me when I found out about Special Consensus’s new album, Chicago Barn Dance, while working from my home office.
I nearly jumped out of my seat when I heard the opening chords to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s 1972 classic “Lake Shore Drive”—E, C#m, G#m. But rather than lush piano keys, the chords emulated from the unmistakable sound of a banjo, dreadnought guitar, mandolin, and bass.
“This has got to be Special Consensus!” I exclaimed, spooking awake my sole officemate (my dog). It made sense that the Chicago-based Special Consensus would cover the song, a homage to Chicago’s lakefront highway. But that wasn’t the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard the song. Based on their covers of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” on 2018’s Rivers and Roads and Ricky Skaggs’s “Highway 40 Blues” on 2016’s Long I Ride, I had a hunch about which band would put out a cover of an iconic 1970s classic. When Rick Faris’s rich voice came in—he’s been with Special Consensus for a decade now—it just sealed the deal.
There are no two ways about it: I’m an unabashed Special Consensus fan. But in the past five years, the band has released two of my favorite bluegrass albums of all time—the aforementioned Long I Ride (2016) and Rivers and Roads (2018). Those two records have set a precedent for what I expect from any Special Consensus project: fantastic use of some amazing collaborators, an airtight a capella gospel number, and great covers.
And wouldn’t you know it, Chicago Barn Dance checks all those boxes. But this time around, the entire album is a loving tribute to Special Consensus’s Windy City home base, featuring songs and tunes about Chicago or written by Chicagoans.
As any ardent bluegrass fan knows, repetitiveness without innovation distinctly doesn’t work in this genre. Greg Cahill certainly knows it—as Special Consensus’s steward for forty-five years now (!), he’s carefully grown the band’s sound while simultaneously refining it.
With their third smash-hit album in the last five years, it’s undeniable that Special Consensus has their hands on the special bluegrass sauce.
One way he’s done that is by integrating new members fairly frequently. This album sees the introduction of Nate Furie on mandolin and vocals; he replaces Nick Dumas on eight-string duties. Nate is a fine addition to the ensemble, with Rick Faris continuing on guitar and most lead vocals, Dan Eubanks handling bass, and naturally, Greg Cahill picking the five-string banjo.
“Looking Out My Back Door”
Suffice it to say that I had high expectations for the band’s latest release, considering my love for their last two records. I set to listening to the album in full—and found it to be a difficult task simply because I wanted to listen to every song over and over and over again. In particular, I found myself hitting the repeat button on track five: a driving cover of (doo, doo, doo) “Looking Out My Back Door” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Helped out by Rob Ickes on dobro (of Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley fame), Special Consensus gave me quite a laugh when in hilarious fashion, the band commented on the original version’s whole-step key change by… adding two additional whole-step key changes at the end of the track. This playful tone extended to a rousing cover of “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” a song made famous by Louis Armstrong.
“My Kind of Town”
I think the most standout tune—in terms of pure musical prowess—is by far “My Kind of Town,” the sole instrumental cut on the album. It features double banjos with Alison Brown (who also produced Chicago Barn Dance) joining Greg Cahill, plus Mike Barnett and Patrick McAvinue on twin fiddles. This tune slaps. And again, it’s exactly what I expected considering Special Consensus’s rendition of “Squirrel Hunters,” also featuring Alison Brown on banjo #2 and 10 String Symphony lending their fiddles to the effort, on Rivers and Roads.
Chicago Barn Dance represents all that is good about modern bluegrass: thoughtful use of the genre’s instruments, an outward-looking and expansive attitude, and creativity that builds on tradition. And above all else, the album is a deft and heartfelt tribute to Special Consensus’s Chicago roots.
It’s more of what I’ve come to expect from Special Consensus—and that’s just about the highest praise I can bestow on this fantastic new record.