Special Consensus pays tribute to Chicago’s bluegrass history

by Jim Lundstrom

When you think of Chicago, you think of what?

Chicago dogs with sport peppers?

Big shoulders?

Cubbies or Bears?

How about bluegrass?

In celebration of its 45th anniversary, the Chicago-born bluegrass band Special Consensus credit the Windy City with a bluegrass legacy in their new release Chicago Barn Dance, paying tribute to the national radio show of the same name that aired Saturday nights from 1931 to 1952 on Chicago radio station WLS, and featuring country and bluegrass stars of the day, such as Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. It was one of the first American country music programs, and a model for the Grand Ole Opry.

The liner notes explain: “The songs on this recording were either written about Chicago or by Chicago songwriters as a nod in this connection with country and bluegrass music history.”

OK. What in the world is the Chicago connection to John Fogerty’s “Looking Out My Back Door”? Not that it really matters. It’s a great bluegrass rendition of the Credence hit, and I’ve long been a fan of bluegrass covers of popular music. A few years back I fell in love with a bluegrass cover of songs of The Moody Blues. It seemed like a most unlikely pairing, but it worked.

The rest of the Chicago connections are easy to see, beginning with the titular opener. A beautiful violin screech opens the record like a call to bluegrass arms (the band is joined by two guest fiddlers – Becky Fuller and Michael Cleveland – they are identified as playing out of the left or right speaker, respectively). Fuller co-wrote the WLS Barn Dance tribute song, along with Missy Raines (who last year was named – for the eighth time! – International Bluegrass Music Association Bass Player of the Year) and album producer/arranger/collaborator/banjoist/guitarist Alison Brown.

Speaking of production, the sound of this CD is amazing – big, bright, rich, alive.
The second song, “Lake Shore Drive” (aka “LSD), also easily fits in place. It was originally recorded in 1971 by the unfortunately named Chicago rock band Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah.

No. 3 is “East Chicago Blues,” written and sung by Chicago-based Bloodshot recording artist Robbie Fulks. It tells the first-person story of Bill Monroe’s move from a “west Kentucjy farmboy” to “drowning in the East Chicago blues.” A press release that came with the CD says Fulks was once a member of Special Consensus, but does not elaborate. This song illustrates Fulks’  great chops voice in a powerful song.

 “My Kind of Town” follows, a sparky bluegrass instrumental take on the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen hit for Frank Sinatra.

The aforementioned incongruous Fogerty tune is next, with tasty dobro from guest Rob Ickes (rhymes with “yikes”), followed by “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” by Tin Pan Alley songwriter Dave Franklin, who also wrote the tune “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” which was adopted as the Looney Tunes theme song. What Franklin’s connection to Chicago is, I’m still searching. This song sounds like something you might have heard in a Busby Berkeley musical of the 1930s, converted to bluegrass. But you can almost see the kaleidoscopic shots of synchronized dancers.

That is followed by a natural in the form of “City of  New Orleans” by  the late, great Chicago singer/songwriter Steve Goodman.  Still a beautiful song.

“I Am the City” was written by the band’s bass player, Dan Eubanks, and is a lickey-split homage to Chicago’s fertile music scene.

“Won’t That Be a Happy Time” shows off the band’s formidable acapella skills in a beautiful traditional gospel tune. Really great stuff.

A cooking version of “Sweet Home Chicago, with poignant string work from banjoist Greg Cahill, guitarist Rick Faris and mandolinist Nate Burie, is the final song before the outro, “Chicago Barn Dance Reprise,” recorded as though you were tuning into the  original broadcast on your old Victrola.

This is a very invigorating and satisfying listen. Happy 45 years, Special Consensus!