Special Consensus celebrates its 45th anniversary by going back to the town where it was born and inviting a bunch of special guests to help them throw the party.
Back in 1975, banjo player Greg Cahill founded the band, and the current incarnation includes guitarist Rick Faris, mandolinist Nate Burke, and bassist Dan Eubanks. The album pays tribute to WLS-AM’s National Barn Dance, the Chicago-based radio show that regularly featured Hank Williams, Bill and Charlie Monroe, and Patsy Montana, among others, and established a connection between Chicago and bluegrass and country music. Chicago Barn Dance pays homage to the City of Big Shoulders; the songs on the album were either written about Chicago or by Chicago songwriters.
The title track — written by Becky Buller, Missy Raines, and Alison Brown, who also produced the album — opens the album with the jaunty twin fiddles of Michael Cleveland and Buller; it’s a strolling, classic bluegrass tune that tells the story of the National Barn Dance show that invites listeners to come and sit a spell on the musicians’ porch as each of them takes a turn; by the end of the song, we’re all dancing and clapping.
Special C alum Robbie Fulks delivers a bluegrass take on his own “East Chicago Blues,” a poignant number that tells the story of Bill Monroe and his journey to work in the oil refineries of Chicago. Brown’s and Cahill’s twin banjos, chased by Mike Barnett’s and Patrick McAvinue’s twin fiddles, deliver a toodling, jazzy breakneck romp of Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town,” while Rob Ickes and his Dobro carry home a spirited and downright fun version of John Fogerty’s “Looking Out My Back Door.”
The one misstep on the album is Special Consensus’ version of “Lake Shore Drive,” which despite Rick Faris’ warm vocals misses the depth of the original, and the band drops the lyric in the chorus — “slipping on by on LSD” — instead using the full name of the road, Lake Shore Drive, which has affectionately been called LSD for generations.
That’s a quibble, of course, for every other song on Chicago Barn Dance, from Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” to Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” to “Won’t That Be a Happy Time,” romps and swings and reveals the affection Special Consensus holds for Chicago and its contributions to bluegrass, country, and folk music.
Chicago Barn Dance showcases Special C’s rolling and rollicking way of making songs their own. Inventive, innovative, improvisational, Special Consensus’ versions of these songs blow out the candles on the band’s celebration in a fitting way, and almost every song on the album invites us to jump up and dance.