Essential New Music: Bill MacKay’s “Fountain Fire “

The visibility afforded guitarist Bill MacKay by his recent run as Ryley Walker’s right-hand man might create the mistaken impression that he’s new on the scene. In fact, he’s been a fixture of Chicago’s music scene for years as both a versatile sideman and a recording artist in his own right.  Fountain Fire, his second solo recording for Drag City, showcases both MacKay’s knacks for cohesive self-editing and elegant arranging, which make his instrumentals feel like complete songs.

Swooping slide licks push back the horizon on “Pre-California” and “Arcadia”; a galloping tempo and strategically situated organ harmonies invite you to imagine the anticipatory journey that preceded the jaunty salutation of “Welcome.” And when MacKay stretches out, as he does on the layered, lyrical “Dragon Country,” there’s enough tension in the exchanges between echo-drenched lead and tempo-pushing rhythm tracks that you’ll want to hang in there and see who wins. Hitherto known as an instrumentalist, MacKay sings two songs. Since Walker’s ditched his folk stylings for jazzy jams and deep dives into the Dave Matthews songbook, there’s room for a new troubadour in town, and MacKay just might be that guy. 

—Bill Meyer