Bill MacKay grew up in the Pittsburgh area, but he packed up his guitar several years ago and headed to Chicago.
Since taking up residence there, he has played in a number of settings, ranging from solo acoustic to a collaboration with fellow guitarist Ryley Walker and his own group, Darts and Arrows. The latter group proved to be a compelling outfit on the 2015 album, Altamira.
MacKay’s writing combined the yearning quality of modern folk with improvisation, sort of like what might happen if the Dirty Three added a few more instruments and dabbled in jazz. He and Walker struck up a friendship built on a mutual love of musicians ranging from bluesman Albert King to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.
Through a month-long residency at Chicago’s The Whistler, they came up with the material that wound up on Land of Plenty and last year’s SpiderBeetleBee both on the Drag City label. The music has an arresting quality, combining picking that feels gentle but never sedate. Both guitars complement each other, giving the music a strong sense of movement.
Last year, Drag City released Esker, a solo guitar album that proved MacKay can sound just as captivating on his own as he does within a group or a duo. “Twilight” is marked by the crisp, austere beauty of his guitar, with roots in John Fahey’s approach to the instrument. But within its melody, notes are bent slightly, hinting at MacKay’s knowledge of Delta blues and his skill at incorporating that style into a gentle piece like this.
While MacKay’s musical career gathered momentum after he left this area, his time back here still impacts some of his work. “Chatham Park,” a 2014 album, refers to an apartment complex in Scott Township where he once lived.