Music News & Reviews

Bluegrass band The Special Consensus brings Chicago sound to A.G.

The Special Consensus performs Saturday at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.
The Special Consensus performs Saturday at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.

Chicago might be the last place one would expect to find a Grammy Award-nominated bluegrass group.

After all, that metropolis is more closely associated with blues, jazz and classic rock. But banjo player Greg Cahill, co-founder of the acoustic bluegrass quartet The Special Consensus, said his band’s success is proof that the genre is alive and well in the Windy City.

“For a lot of years, people wouldn’t take us seriously. (They’d say) ‘You’re not from the right place,’ ” Cahill said. But, he added, “People trust in our sound now.”

The Special Consensus is set to perform Saturday at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.

Cahill’s introduction to bluegrass came through folk music.

The performer, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, spent his high school and college years listening to folk groups including The Kingston Trio, The Limeliters and Peter, Paul and Mary. Then, while he was studying economics at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a fellow musician introduced him to a new sound.

“This guy came in with a recording of Flatt and Scruggs, and, boy, that just grabbed me,” Cahill recalled.

After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Cahill earned his master’s degree in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But he only worked in that field for a year.

“All I could think about was playing banjo,” Cahill said, so he took off a year to focus solely on music. “I’ve been saying ‘One more year’ since I quit my day job in 1974.”

Cahill and bass player Marc Edelstein founded the Special Consensus Bluegrass Band in 1975 — choosing a name that reflected the members’ various musical backgrounds. The band released its first album four years later, when it started touring on a national basis.

Now in its fourth decade, The Special Consensus has earned accolades from the likes of the International Bluegrass Music Association and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and released 17 albums. (Cahill has released three albums on his own — 1980’s “Lone Star,” 1992’s “Blue Skies” and 1998’s “Night Skies.”)

“Scratch Gravel Road,” released in 2012 by Compass Records, garnered the group its first Grammy nomination for best bluegrass album.

“We were shocked,” said Cahill, the only founding member still with the band. “That’s the best recognition you can get from your peers.”

Guitarist Rick Faris originally joined the group as a mandolin player in 2009, while bassist Dan Eubanks came on board in 2013. Mandolin player Nick Dumas is the latest addition as of November 2015. (All four members share singing duties.)

“They all liked the band and liked the music over the years,” Cahill explained, adding that each performer has brought a fresh perspective to the table. “That’s the trick to keeping a band going. You have to keep up with new sounds and new ideas.”

For instance, the band paid homage to a music legend with the album “Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver.” It was released in 2014 — just a couple of weeks after Denver’s signature hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” was designated as one of West Virginia’s official state songs.

“Country Boy” features that tune, as well as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Wild Montana Skies” and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” to name a few.

“It’s actually very difficult to choose 10 songs by John Denver,” Cahill said. “There are so many.”

The Special Consensus headed into the studio in December to begin recording a new, as yet-untitled album, which the band hopes to release by the end of March. Tracks will include Townes Van Zandt’s “Big Country Blues” and Ricky Skaggs’ “Highway 40 Blues,” plus “Life Stories,” penned by former Special Consensus guitarist Ryan Roberts.

Central Coast audience members may hear a few of those songs when The Special Consensus performs Saturday.

According to Cahill, the bluegrass band tosses everything from a capella gospel songs and Celtic reels to traditional bluegrass tunes in the mix. A typical concert might include the country song “Carolina in the Pines” and an instrumental cover of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”

“We just hope that everybody who comes leaves with a smile (on their faces),” he said.

The Special Consensus

8 p.m. Saturday

Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande

$29 to $39

489-4196 or www.clarkcenter.org

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