Review: Bluegrass band Special Consensus hosts a barn dance

Special Consensus, “Chicago Barn Dance” (Compass)

Chicago blues is a sound and a brand. Chicago bluegrass has a more obscure history, and the band Special Consensus honors that past on “Chicago Barn Dance.”

The album was inspired by the National Barn Dance, a country and bluegrass show heard in the Midwest on Chicago radio station WLS from 1924 to 1968. Chicago native Greg Cahill, who founded Special Consensus in 1975, plays banjo and leads the quartet through a joyous set.

The mood is established on the opening title cut, which strikes a topical observation that “times are hard, the news is grim” but swings anyway. The late Chicagoan Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” strikes a nostalgic note with handsome harmonies, and John Fogerty’s “Looking Out My Back Door” becomes a rare bluegrass celebration of psychedelics, with the coda a real trip.

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The breadth of the band’s talent is such that the instrumental “My Kind of Town” and the a cappella gospel tune “Won’t That Be a Happy Time” are equally terrific. Mandolinist Nate Burie and guitarist Rick Faris shine whether they’re soloing or singing lead, and Cahill always plays something interesting, even in support.

Credit producer Alison Brown for inventive arrangements that showcase each band member, and such guests as singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks and fiddler Michael Cleveland also contribute, sounding happy to join the dance.

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