Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
The Special Consensus, “35” (Compass) ★★★
The Special Consensus’ latest release, “35,” is a smartly fueled hybrid. To celebrate his bluegrass band’s 35th anniversary, banjoist and founder Greg Cahill recorded six new tracks with the current Special C lineup and compiled six tracks that originally appeared on albums that are now out of print.
The older recordings are culled from the ’80s and ’90s, and there are no less than nine lead vocalists included here, but the album still sounds cohesive. That’s because Cahill is fond of traditional bluegrass arrangements, which he occasionally makes artfully spare. A total of 44 musicians have been in Special C over the decades, but Cahill has remained the only constant member of the Chicago-based group.
The new tracks shine a spotlight on Ryan Roberts, who is not only the current lineup’s best singer but also an excellent guitarist and songwriter. His original composition “Dusk ’Til Dawn” is a jaunty, memorable murder ballad, and “Working on a Railroad” features sparkling mandolin work by Rick Faris. “Land Up in the Air” is an a cappella gospel number that allows the quartet to show off its carefully woven vocals.
Among the older cuts, there’s a fine rendition of Gail Davies’ “I’m a Little Bit Lonely,” with lead vocals by Darren Wilcox. As always, Cahill supplies sturdy banjo licks that serve the song, without any fluff or grandstanding.
Studebaker John’s Maxwell Street Kings, “That’s the Way You Do” (Delmark) ★★★1/2
Maxwell Street was more than a bargain-hunter’s paradise in its heyday half a century ago — it was a point of entry for foreign immigrants as well as Southern blacks seeking a new life in sweet home Chicago. Studebaker John Grimaldi does a great job of capturing the ambience of the long-gone West Side neighborhood with “That’s the Way You Do,” a disc of 15 self-penned tunes, played as they might have sounded at a 1950s Maxwell Street jam.
John, a vocalist, slide guitarist and harpist, fronts a true blue Chicago trio that also includes guitarist Rick Kreher, a veteran of Muddy Waters’ last band, and drummer Steve Cushing, best known as host of the “Blues Before Sunrise!” radio show. Note the lack of a bassist, which you probably won’t notice otherwise on this impeccably produced album. John and Kreher share production credits with Mike Konopka. Together they’ve crafted a disc that Delmark chief Bob Koester might have turned out back in the day when he was teaching the world how to record the blues.
The centerpiece is “Headin’ Down to Maxwell Street,” which laments this lost Chicago landmark without resorting to sloppy sentimentality. John’s slide work drives the stompers and grinders alike, climaxing with “Taylor Street Boogie.” Grab a Polish sausage, crank up the volume and roll away the years.