Special Consensus: Signs

Many years ago, this reviewer hosted a weekly bluegrass radio show on WHPK, at the University of Chicago. Through the radio show and the U of C Folk Festival, I had the chance to meet local and national bluegrass acts, and even had the privilege of interviewing the bandleader of Chicago’s premier bluegrass band, the Special Consensus, for the WHPK magazine.  That was probably 1987 or 88; fast forward 21 years, and the Special Consensus is still making compelling, interesting and sophisticated bluegrass music. However, after seeing the Special C probably 8 or 10 times (and with different band members each performance, it seemed) in the years since college, I’ve come to think of the Special Consensus not as a band so much as a concept, a vehicle for banjoist Greg Cahill’s urban bluegrass style, which encompasses the influences of Chicago blues, swing, newgrass, and commercial country music, and which is always tight, clean, and smooth.

“Gone To Carolina”

Yet let’s be clear: the center of the Special Consensus is Greg Cahill’s banjo- his rhythm really grounds every song without overpowering it. Mr. Cahill, who as I remember was just about the nicest guy a young bluegrass fan could meet, is now the President of the IBMA, which seems appropriate given his long career and ability to bring such diverse bluegrass styles together in his band. (Also, as President of Bluegrass, he’s able to pardon your bluegrass crimes, as his predecessor Tim O’Brien used to quip.) Listening to Signs, the latest CD from the Special C, I’m also struck by the thoughtfulness of the arrangements; it seems like every song on this CD is structured
differently, with hardly a reversion to the mean of verse-chorus-break that one finds on less interesting recordings.

Justin Carbone (guitar and lead vocals) and Ashby Frank (mandolin and lead vocals) are really top-notch pickers, who pull beautiful and bell-like tones out of their instruments; both of them do justice to the Special C tradition and indeed add to it with multiple songwriting credits. Highlights for me on this CD included “Too Late Now,” a bluesy song which could probably be rearranged for a country “hat act” but sounds great with guest dobroist Randy Kohrs. “Lonesome Lesson Learned” is fired-up bluegrass, but the quality of the arrangement adds a dramatic quality – great sweeps of guitar stand out in the middle of the song following an unbelievably fast and clean mandolin break.

The song after that, “Footprints,” slows things down considerably; it’s a gentle gospel song, but more folky than fire-and-brimstone.  “Snowball Breakdown” is one of those great banjo numbers that somehow loses something when the other instruments take the lead; it’s probably because Cahill’s use of “Scruggs tuners” works so well that
even hot mandolin or guitar doesn’t sound as distinctive.

“I’ll Go to My Grave Lovin’ You” is a Statler Brothers tune from the 70’s; this is more or less just an acoustic version of their earlier “Nashville sound” arrangement (you can find it on Youtube if you don’t believe me.) But never mind Nashville – it wouldn’t be a Special Consensus album if there weren’t a swing tune and, indeed, “Talkin’ Bout It Just Don’t Get It Done” makes it seems like bluegrass is a native Chicago art form. While there were a few other songs on the album that were merely good, I thought “My Heart Breaks Again” was outstanding; it’s the best of the new bluegrass, a true-life song that nevertheless has more than three chords in it.

To sum up: if you’ve liked what Special Consensus has been doing since 1975, you’ll like what they’re doing in 2009. If you need your bluegrass rough around the edges, with ancient and craggy tones, this might not be your cup of tea, but then again, this is music made by the President of Bluegrass, so I say:

Hail to the Chief !

Rounder Records

Neal Loevinger

Neal Loevinger is a hospital chaplain who loves things that start with the letter B, like bluegrass, bourbon, bikes and books. He is the proud father of two kids who may yet learn to appreciate bluegrass like he does.

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