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Special Consensus

Chicago Barn Dance – 2020 (Compass)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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We've come to expect quality from Special Consensus. Grammy nominees and frequent IBMA award nominees and winners, Special C has ascended to the top of their bluegrass world.

In their 45th year, banjoist Greg Cahill has shepherded the group to increasingly impressive levels. "Chicago Barn Dance" is no exception. A concept album, "Chicago Barn Dance" celebrates not only Special C's sapphire anniversary, but also Cahill's hometown's connections to roots music.

Bluegrassifying choice covers - "I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music," Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans", and "Sweet Home Chicago" - enliven the recording, providing immediate familiarity.

"I Am The City," written and sung by bass player Dan Eubanks, is terrific. The stellar Fulks song "East Chicago Blues" and "Chicago Barn Dance" (written by frequent collaborators Becky Buller, Missy Raines, and Alison Brown) provide historical context.

A Special Consensus alumnus, Fulks' distinctive voice and phrasing is instantly recognizable as he ambles through "East Chicago Blues." A fine song, capturing the opportunity a 'hog-eyed, country boy' found once the inspired path of musician and bandleader presented itself.

The a cappella gospel showcase "Won't That Be A Happy Time" is testimony of the Special C's considerable vocal prowess. Taking the lead is the band's most recent addition, mandolinist Nate Burie, and with everyone singing their parts to perfection, this one has IBMA recognition written all over it.

Equally impressive is Rick Faris' lead on the majority of the songs. Sung by guitarist Faris, "Sweet Home Chicago," "Lake Shore Drive," and "I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music" become traditional-sounding bluegrass songs: their transformation is complete.

A handful of guests appear including fiddlers Becky Buller and Michael Cleveland on "Chicago Barn Dance." Patrick McAvinue and Mike Barnett also provide twin fiddles to "My Kind of Town;" presented as an instrumental, Cahill and Brown also double up the banjos. Rob Ickes brings Dobro to John Fogerty's "Looking Out My Back Door."

Reflecting Chicago's connection to Americana music, "Chicago Barn Dance" is a wonderful addition to a strong slate of 2020 bluegrass. Here's to another 45 years of Special Consensus.