The Special Consensus, “Chicago Barn Dance”

“The good thing about playing music,” says Greg Cahill, “is that you feel good a lot of the time, because you get to play music, and make a lot of great friends, and meet a lot of nice, really good people.” Cahill founded The Special Consensus in 1975, and if there is a guiding principle to the project, that’s it: music and people. Cahill is the only consistent member, and the band has been a school for so many young players over the years, giving them prominence and recognition, much like Bill Monroe did with the Bluegrass Boys.

Throughout, and through every configuration, they’ve been ambassadors less for bluegrass than for just finding joy in music itself. Cahill once recalled going into inner city schools to do outreach. “We went into some pretty hard-core inner-city neighborhoods in the Chicago area and some other cities. Sometimes the guys would say, ‘oh my God, they’re going to hate us.’ And I’d just say, you know what, we love this music and we should just go play the music and show them, you know, that this is what we love to do and we hope you like it.” And invariably they did. “I think it’s just that we all just genuinely love the music and what to share it.”

That approach is why this album, perhaps particularly now, is so welcome. It’s produced by the best in the genre, Alison Brown at Compass Records, and features some of the fantastic players that record there: Mike Barnett, Becky Buller, Michael Cleveland, Robbie Fulks, Rob Ickes, Patrick McAvinue, Ned Luberecki and Alison Brown. They are great friends playing music together and it shows.

The organizing principle for the project, as the title suggests, is Chicago, where Cahill has been based for much of his career. It was undertaken to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the band as well as the connection of country and bluegrass music to the city. The WLS “National Barn Dance” premiered in Chicago and became a precursor to the Grand Ole Opry.

The genres represented range from jazz, with the standard “My Kind of Town,” to folk, to blues as with “Sweet Home Chicago.” That said, the arrangements are all, rightly, bluegrass arrangements, celebrating all the styles and tropes you’d expect. There are lots of delightful winks and nods along the way, musically and thematically, and “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music” proves the point. The musicians are clearly playing together, sharing ideas in so many masterful ways. The a cappella “Won’t that Be a Happy Time” is a highlight, as are the guitar and mandolin solos in “City of New Orleans.” Everyone is clearly finding their joy and capitalizing on it. That’s what this album is all about.

For Penguin Eggs, Summer/Autumn Double Issue 2020

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