David Royko Psy.D
by David Royko
April 26, 2020
It's been years since mention of Special Consensus has been automatically preceded or followed by “…Chicago bluegrass band…”. Grammy nominations and IBMA Album of the Year awards tend to do that -- even if the novelty of a major bluegrass band originating -- and remaining rooted for 45 years -- in Chicago is pretty irresistible. But they don’t need a novel hook, being a first-rate band, as well as a trampoline for launching major bluegrass talent -- a sort-of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers of bluegrass.
But now they’ve gone and done it themselves, with Chicago Barn Dance. And why the heck not? Especially when they have created a fine and, in the ‘70s rock world, what would have been called a “concept album,” complete with a fade-out at the end paying direct homage to Bluegrass roots, which actually run deep in Chicago. (Who woulda thunk, right? Well, anybody who knows anything about the music’s founding father, Bill Monroe, but anyway…)
And that particular tribute goes deeper, to both man and town, with Special C alum and alt-Country (etc.) star Robbie Fulks pitching in with his composition and lead vocal on East Chicago Blues, about exactly that -- Monroe’s economically-driven time in Chicago working at an oil refinery and spending nights plying his pre-bluegrass trade on the nationally-broadcast WLS Barn Dance.
The current line-up of Nate Burie, Rick Faris and Dan Eubanks (mandolin, guitar, bass, vocals all) does leader Greg Cahill proud (and Faris is already a solo artist with an album of his own). They maintain a touring schedule that would be a grind for a younger man, yet somehow the banjo methuselah makes it seem easy once he steps on stage, banjo in hand (and on strap), to deliver the goods.
And these goods are very good. Their instrumental take of My Kind Of Town pairs him with Grammy/IBMA award winner and label-owner Alison Brown for a musically visceral dual-banjo romp, while his almost-single note rolls on the chorus of Lake Shore Drive are simply a delight as he flaunts some edge-of-your-seat precision.
That classic tune is one example of Cahill's ability to pull material from non-bluegrass sources, not an easy task. Countless contemporary bluegrass acts blow it in this regard, trying to fit square bluegrass tuning pegs into hexagonal holes and deservedly turning up for a hearty guffaw in places like the (late and lamented) Annoying Music Show.
Not Cahill. Lake Shore Drive (with a tweak that would be approved by Mister Monroe himself, who insisted bluegrass music has no filth, and the tongue in 1970s cheek of "LSD" in some of the choruses would not fly with him) is a great choice, sounding like a bluegrass original.
Likewise the CCR classic Looking Out My Back Door, though it has no relevance to Chicago, does fit, musically as well as lyrically, with a band of road weary pickers leaning back on the porch between tours.
The disc, which is also packed with impressive guest stars, wraps with a fragmental reprise of the infectious title track, made to sound like an ancient broadcast, complete with announcer, from the WLS Barn Dance, capping off a disc that is as unique in vision as it is successful in execution. Bravo boys, you’ve done yourselves, and the city, proud.