It’s Canada Day, the official “birthday” of Canada, and what better way to celebrate the country’s rich folk music heritage than with Special Consensus’ new album Great Blue North, a rollicking tribute to great Canadian songwriters, singers, and musicians. The group delivers lively, entertaining bluegrass versions of songs by Canadian artists from Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray to Bruce Cockburn, Trisha Gagnon, and Fred Eaglesmith, among others. A host of the group’s Canadian friends including Pharis & Jason Romero, April Verch, Ray Legere, Leonard Podolak, John Resichman and The Jaybird Trio and John Showman join Special Consensus for some down-home, front porch picking and singing, featuring rich harmonies and tight instrumentals.
The initial inspiration for making Great Blue North came from a song the band left off its last album, 2018’s Chicago Barn Dance. “We had this song by J.P. Cormier, a Cape Breton guitar player and songwriter, called ‘Blackbird,’ but it didn’t fit on Chicago Barn Dance. After COVID hit, we said, ‘hey, let’s release a single to let folks know we’re still here,” laughs the group’s co-founder and banjo player Greg Cahill.
The song had wings of its own, earning Special Consensus a 2022 IBMA nomination for Collaborative Performance of the Year. The success of the single got the group to thinking about an album devoted to Canadian music. “We’ve been touring and playing regularly in Canada for the past 40 years. Why don’t we tip our hat to our Canadian friends on this album?” says Cahill. Cahill and the rest of the group—Michael Prewitt on mandolin, Greg Blake on guitar, Dan Eubanks on guitar—started looking for songs to add to “Blackbird” to make an album. “We started doing our research, and I can’t tell you how difficult it was for us to come up with nine more songs,” he chuckles. “I mean, if we did Gordon Lightfoot alone, that would be very difficult; which ones do you choose? So, we started asking ourselves what songs are we going to leave out of the hundreds we selected initially,” he recalls.
Once they started going through the songs, the process took on its own rhythm. “We were looking for songs by Canadian writers, but we also wanted to include as many of our Canadian musician friends as we could,” says Cahill. “We also listened and listened. We’d choose a song and try an arrangement and harmony vocals to see what it sounded like. Sometimes we’d try songs that didn’t sound so great at first but once we worked with it they sounded better. Alison Brown is an excellent producer. Every song was like its own album; we put a lot of energy into each song. There will never be a filler song on a Special Consensus album,” reflects Cahill.
Great Blue North opens with “Snowbird,” penned by Gene MacLellan and made famous by Anne Murray. On Special Consensus’s spry, lilting version, which features Blake’s smooth baritone vocals and Claire Lynch’s sparkling descant harmonies, you can almost feel the snowbird taking flight as the song soars on the wings of Prewitt’s mandolin runs and Cahill’s banjo picking. “This song was perfect for Greg Blake’s voice,” says Cahill.
Rob Ickes guests on Resophonic guitar on the buoyant road song “Highway 95,” written by David Francey. Ickes unfurling licks on the instrumental bridge evoke the loneliness of traveling down certain stretches of highway, even as Prewitt’s high lonesome vocals convey the glorious feeling of freedom the road brings. The group’s jaunty version of “Don’t You Try to Change My Mind,” written by Eaglesmith, revels in its pure traditional bluegrass vocal and instrumental harmonies; each instrument has a chance to stretch out on the instrumental bridges.
The group’s take on Lightfoot’s “Alberta Bound”—one of two Lightfoot songs on the album; the other is “Brave Mountaineers”—might be the highlight of the album since it features the collaboration among so many musicians. The songs scampers off from the first downstroke of Ray Legere’s fiddle, and the high energy never lets up.
“This even features my whistling debut,” laughs Cahill. “We wanted to end with some whistling and looked around to find someone. One day Alison heard me whistling—and I’m not a great whistler—and she said, ‘you do it. Just picture yourself walking down the street at the end of the song, whistling.’ That’s how the video for the song ends, with me walking down the sidewalk, whistling,” he points out.
“We always include an instrumental on our albums,” says Cahill. For Great Blue North, Brown brought the traditional tunes “La Belle Catherine” and “Jack Rabbit Jump,” which she arranged and titled “Pretty Kate and the Rabbit.” The spirited medley features April Verch and Darol Anger on twin fiddles and Cahill and Brown on twin banjos, a feature of Special Consensus albums since 2012. Says Cahill, and as the video reveals, “we had fun with this one.”
The minor chord bluegrass rambler “The Jaybird Song,” written by Gagnon, unfolds slowly and changes tempo mid-song. “We made it into a fast bluegrass song, the kind we like to sing,” chuckles Cahill.
The album closes with a sparklingly beautiful ode to the artist’s life on the road, “Time Wanders On,” penned by Cara Luft and Bella Hardy.
On Great Blue North, Special Consensus does what the group does best: it delivers intimate vocal and instrumental harmonies that convey the spirit of the group so that listeners feel as if they’re sitting in the circle of musicians as they work out the songs’ arrangements. Great Blue North captures the essence of these songs by Canadian writers, rendering each one tenderly, faithfully, yet finding within the songs the notes and phrases that turn them into a Special Consensus version of them.
Great Blue North is available HERE