Album Reviews: Special Consensus, John Stewart, the Nighthawks

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Special Consensus, Chicago Barn DanceChicago probably isn’t the first city you’d associate with bluegrass, but a fairly strong connection exists, perhaps most notably via the WLS National Barn Dance, a Grand Ole Opry-style radio program that lasted more than four decades. In 1975, also, the city gave birth to the bluegrass band Special Consensus, which today consists of cofounder Greg Cahill, a virtuoso banjo player, and three members who joined over the past decade: mandolinist Nate Burie, bassist Dan Eubanks, and guitarist/lead vocalist Rick Faris. 

To celebrate their 45th anniversary, the group has assembled an album of songs that have a link to the Windy City. Some—like “Lake Shore Drive,” Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” and the title cut (which was written for this album)—reference the metropolis directly; the connection is a bit more tenuous for other tracks, such as John Fogerty’s “Looking Out My Back Door,” which simply mentions Illinois; and “City of New Orleans,” which also references the state and was written by the late Steve Goodman, who lived there. The musicianship—especially the banjo work by Cahill—is first-rate throughout.

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John Stewart, Old Forgotten Altars: The 1960s DemosIt’s unfortunate that many music fans know of the late John Stewart—if they know of him at all—just as the former Kingston Trio member whose songs have been recorded by artists ranging from the Monkees (“Daydream Believer”) to Rosanne Cash (Runaway Train”) and the Kennedys (“Jasmine”). Stewart was also a powerful solo artist, and his many albums are permeated with must-hear vocal work and fine original material that only he recorded. 

If you’re not familiar with those records, you might want to start with Turning Music into Gold: The Best of John Stewart, which—while not the career-spanning CD that the title suggests—combines two of his best LPs on one disc. After digesting that and such other standouts as 1969’s California Bloodlines, give a listen to this 19-track collection of early, previously unreleased work, which includes four songs that ended up on the Kingston Trio’s 1966 Children of the Morning LP and five compositions that would surface on California Bloodlines. The recordings here tend to be much closer to traditional folk than to the folk/rock Stewart later produced; they’re also relatively stripped down, with minimal instrumentation. Still, you can hear evidence of the singer’s large talent on nearly every track.

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The Nighthawks, Tryin’ to Get to YouThe Nighthawks have been around for nearly half a century, but only in name: with the exception of founder and harmonica player Mark Wenner, the quartet’s original members left long ago. The current lineup, though, seems fully capable of delivering on his original vision, which according to the band’s website involved “mixing blues, R&B, honky-tonk country, doo-wop, gospel, and rockabilly into one delicious stew.” 

Performing a few originals and covering such numbers as the Elvis Presley-associated “Tryin’ to Get to You,” James Brown’s “Tell Me What I Did Wrong,” and T-Bone Walker’s “I Know Your Wig Is Gone,” the band keeps things simple on their 31st CD: augmenting vocals with just harp, guitars, drums, and bass, they produce rootsy music that sounds as if it was recorded live in the studio.

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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