Bill MacKay is a musician and a musician's friend – a genial guitarist/composer/improviser based in Chicago who has energized the experimental folk, rock and avant scenes around town with his polyglot approach to the guitar, combining the folk of Appalachia, the blues and gospel with rock, jazz, western-country and an array of eastern modes. Over the past decade-plus, he has recorded records for Tompkins Square, Whistler, Relay, and ears&ears, both as a solo artist and with his band Darts & Arrows, while performing and collaborating with a number of other artists.
Bill's most recent album was Sunrise, in which he examined the songs of John Hulbert, whose 1972 private-press classic Opus III reflected a uniquely mid-western hybridization of finger style and city blues playing. MacKay's interest in this tactic – essentially, a personal blending of roots elements – has evidenced itself throughout his discography. On Esker, his third solo work, Bill takes it further with an album of all-original material performed entirely in consort with himself. Playing all the parts with guitars, glass slide, bass, piano and percussion, he deepens his hybrid-genre approach with both contrast and cohesion, creating warm, melodic narratives that draw on folk, psych and experimental rock modes.
Side one themes range from the Moorish air, "Aster," to early American strains and pure chunks of folk-rock, while side two finds Bill expanding into abstract spaces as he realizes a long-held goal: casting the rolling spirit of the landscape in song. The album's extended closer, "Scarlet's Return," overlaps liquid slide guitars and gently loping rhythm, slowly building a raga-esque fugue state, cinematic in its progression, with primal airs and com- plex psychology evoked by every new passage.
With cover images from fellow Chicago musician and friend Marc Riordan, the cumulative impact of Esker is of peaceful oneness for the active listener. The dynamic singularity with which Bill ties his interests together is the key to his music, an effortless combination of wide-ranging elements that evokes a warm and enveloping view of the world around us. Would but the grace of his slide guitars accompany our final steps into the grave, it would be a life well-spent!