Bluegrass bands work one of two ways – as autocracies or democracies. Most of the longer-lasting amalgamations fall into the former category. Doyle Lawson's Quicksilver has had the same basic sound since its inception due to Lawson's perfectionist direction. During most of his career Bill Monroe was an autocrat, but when Flatt and Scruggs joined his band he made a major democratic (if temporary) adjustment in his sound. This brings us to Special Consensus; banjo player Greg Cahill has led it for more than thirty years, and it's always been a democracy.
Cahill Admits, "I'm not a lead singer. So I can either try to mold players, which doesn't necessarily accentuate their strengths, or I can look at change as a positive thing." Every incarnation of Special Consensus has had its own sound. The current incarnation, which features Justin Carbone on guitar and lead vocal, Ashby Frank on mandolin and lead vocals, and David Thomas on acoustic bass and vocals, combines the forward momentum of the best bluegrass bands with a melodic and lyrical bent.
Six of the twelve songs on Signs, including the title number, are originals from the new band members. Ashby Frank's "Signs" is written so everyone shines. It begins with a tight banjo intro, utilizes all three vocalists for its three-part chorus, and includes hot mandolin and guitar solos during the instrumental break. Two Ronnie Bowman compositions, "Footprints," and "Talkin ‘Bout It Just Don't Get It Done," fit the band like a hand into a glove. "Footprints" emphasizes the band's softer, more euphonic character, while "Talkin ‘Bout It Just Don't Get It Done" lets the band swing in a way few other bluegrass bands can.
I had an opportunity to hear Special Consensus live at the Midwinter Bluegrass Festival in 2006. While I was impressed by the band's musicianship, they lacked the strong musical identity of the current band. Both Ashby Frank and David Thomas have brought a more coherent musical direction that propels them from being merely another good regional bluegrass band to a first-class ensemble. I'm looking forward to hearing more from this incarnation of Special Consensus. They prove that a musical democracy can work.