I met Bill MacKay a long time ago. The first time I heard him play guitar was on the patio of Letizia’s Bakery, kitty-corner to the ugliest hospital in Chicago. I don’t remember the tunes he played that afternoon but do remember thinking he was way too good to just be a soundtrack to folks lingering over muffins and cappuccinos.

In the ’80s on “Saturday Night Live” there was a bandleader named G.E. Smith. He slicked back his grey hair and wore retro duds. The guitars he played looked vintage and were undoubtedly pricey. He knew every hot lick in the book, as well as the corresponding facial expression meant to underline the deep feelings behind every last riff. The trouble was that not a note he played ever rang true. Anytime he shut his eyes and leaned back, as if under his own spell, I’d wish a piano would land on him so that just for once the emotion on that mug were real.

Bill MacKay is the opposite of G.E. Smith. He underplays when a lesser player can’t resist wailing away. Over the fifteen or so years I’ve gone to see him, I’ve heard him play jazz, pop, country, and everything in between. But there’s always a gentle, searching quality, a wistfulness, which is a quality most of my favorite music has. I’ve sketched him playing guitar more than anyone else because I never tire of wanting to witness where he’ll go next. He’s used some of my artwork to illustrate his recordings. The latest is a short set of solo guitar pieces by newly-rediscovered folkie John Hulburt. It’s being put out by the great Tompkins Square Records, which I hope widens Bill’s audience. I’m proud to have contributed a bit to his work and to count him as a friend. You can find out more about him at his site and buy the new recording here or anywhere you buy your digital entertainment. 

If you’re in Chicago, make sure and catch Bill playing with his pal Ryley Walker inĀ the front room of the Hideout on Tuesday night.

If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you get through that.