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On his charmingly low-key Drag City debut, veteran Chicago guitarist Bill MacKay shows his full range

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For years Bill MacKay has soldiered on as one of the most skilled and tasteful guitarists in Chicago, a player who fluidly moves between jazz and rock while making several stops in between. He’s gained attention for his quartet Darts & Arrows—a tuneful fusion band that somehow bridges a gap between Larry Coryell’s early work with Gary Burton and Tortoise at their most lyric—but other sides of his musical personality have commanded the spotlight too, including the rustic, folksy one on display in his duo with Ryley Walker. Yet nothing has shown his full range as effectively as his new instrumental solo collection, Esker, his debut on Drag City. The charmingly low-key, richly melodic collection veers from style to style in a most natural fashion, casually celebrating MacKay’s unabashed love of the guitar (though he does overdub a bit of piano and percussion). Not a purist, he quietly layers acoustic and electric playing, privileging sweetly melodic lines over thickets of fingerstyle harmonies whether during the ragtime of “Candy,” the moody psychedelia of “Clementine Candy,” or the atmospheric, reverb-drenched slide-guitar fantasia of “Scarlet’s Return.” The record is the most high-profile release of MacKay’s career, but at 49 he clearly doesn’t feel the need to show off; he expresses himself most poetically by retaining his lovely sense of mood and tenderness. Frequent collaborators Katinka Kleijn (cello) and Marc Riordan (piano) will play solo sets before and after his performance, respectively.   v

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