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Special Consensus. Credit Stacie Huckeba.
Credit: Stacie Huckeba

Chicago-based bluegrass outfit Special Consensus has covered a lot of musical territory in the nearly half a century since banjoist Greg Cahill founded the band in 1975. Two-time GRAMMY nominees and six-time International Bluegrass Music Association winners, the group has amassed an expansive discography of over 20 releases including 2020’s CHICAGO BARN DANCE which highlighted the important role the Windy City played in the early development of bluegrass music.

With their new release GREAT BLUE NORTH, Special Consensus turns their gaze northward, across the great lakes, to Canada. The album offers a thoughtfully curated collection of well-known and obscure songs from Canadian writers and features collaborations with some Canada’s most notable bluegrass and folk musicians. Band leader Greg Cahill comments: “Special Consensus has toured regularly in Canada since our earliest days and counts many great Canadian bluegrass players and singers among our musical friends. After we released ‘Blackbird’, penned by Cape Breton-based J.P. Cormier, as a single last year we began to think that recording an album of all Canadian songs would be a great way to tip our hats to the immense talent in the Canadian bluegrass community. Getting to collaborate with some of our northern friends on the project was the icing on the cake.”

GREAT BLUE NORTH kicks off with a smooth-grass version of the classic “Snowbird,” featuring Special Consensus’ newest member, lead singer and guitarist Greg Blake, together with the crystalline vocal harmonies of Claire Lynch, an Alabama-raised and newly-minted Canadian who now calls Toronto home. The band chose a gem from Ontario-based Dave Francey called “Highway 95” to showcase their new mandolin player Michael Prewitt on lead vocals and invited frequent Special Consensus collaborator Rob Ickes to guest on resophonic guitar. They also offer two songs from Gordon Lightfoot’s catalog, “Brave Mountaineers” and the anthemic “Alberta Bound,” which serves as a thematic center piece for the record as well as the lead single. Special Consensus’s version of the Lightfoot classic is powered by New Brunswick fiddler Ray Legere, and features an impressive array of Canadian vocal talent, including Patrick Sauber, Trisha Gagnon and John Reischman (The Jaybird Trio), and Pharis & Jason Romero trading lead vocals with Michael Prewitt.

Winnepeg-based clawhammer banjo player and co-founder of The Duhk’s, Leonard Podolak, adds a funky groove to a cover of Bruce Cockburn’s 90’s hit “Mighty Trucks of Midnight,” which features longtime Special Consensus bassist Dan Eubanks on lead vocals. And the band is joined by Pembroke, Ontario-bred fiddler April Verch, jazz-grass fiddle pioneer Darol Anger, and the album’s producer, banjoist Alison Brown, on a spirited romp through two traditional Canadian fiddle tunes, the Quebeçois tune “La Belle Catherine” and the Métis fiddle tune “Jack Rabbit Jump” on a set dubbed “Pretty Kate and the Rabbit.” Rounding out the album are songs from Fred Eaglesmith, The Small Glories, Trisha Gagnon and J.P. Cormier, who contributed “Blackbird” which Special Consensus released last year as a teaser for the new album and which earned the band an 2022 IBMA nomination for Collaborative Performance of the Year.

Taken as a whole, GREAT BLUE NORTH expands Special Consensus’s musical footprint, furthering their legacy as Chicago’s premiere bluegrass ambassadors and establishing them as torchbearers for the international reach of bluegrass music. Cahill adds:  We hope the international bluegrass community will enjoy the new music and join us in celebrating the fact that bluegrass music truly has no borders!”