By Ashley Mouldon
It’s an unlikely juxtaposition—the Spanish requinto, guitar and improv—but this colorful combination will be the highlight of Bill MacKay’s set this weekend at Heaven Gallery. Hailing from Pittsburgh, MacKay, 41, traveled extensively before planting his feet in Chicago in the summer of 1998. During one of his excursions to Mexico, MacKay met fellow folk artist Ramon Gutierrez Hernandez and it was then that MacKay fell upon the requinto: a smaller version of the modern guitar with a slightly higher-pitched tone. Hernandez, a member of the group Son de Madera, handcrafted MacKay’s requinto. “It’s just a resonant and radiant instrument that I fell in love with,” MacKay says, and now he is bringing it to life on stage, fusing it with his seasoned guitar skills. “The requinto adds a different texture, different color to the sound.”
MacKay describes his music as: “aiming for melodic songwriting, a wide take on things that have folk culture and music as a kind of root, and that cinematic notion of improvising, a voyage. It’s sort of like being an orthodox surrealist.” His ability to give songs a recognizable twist is something MacKay has been perfecting for a number of years. He started playing music at just 9 years old in a household where his dad and brother played the trumpet and his mother played the piano. He grew up listening to The Beatles, Chopin, Jimi Hendrix and Laura Nyro and now, as an adult artist, still credits those early groups as his inspiration.
MacKay and Tyler Beach—both of the group Leafbird—have been making melodies together for the past three years. Together, their sounds incorporate a blending of genres not often heard on Chicago stages. From blues and folk to jazz and rockabilly, MacKay and Beach thrive on mingling various sounds. And now with the addition of the requinto, both artists look forward to the fresh harmonies to be played.
Leafbird, an off-shoot of the band Fingers and Toes, was formed in 2007. The group has a fresh and airy sound with raspy voices that sing out relatable lyrics. Perfectly crafted instrumentals fill the background with a soft hum. But MacKay and Beach have taken their Leafbird skills to the next level, creating their own duo of harmonious textures weaved together into an awe-inspiring instrumental sound.
One of the special features MacKay and Beach have enveloped into their concerts is improvisation. Both artists enjoy interacting with the audience, making them a part of the entertainment. Rather than just standing on stage playing for someone, they’d rather be playing with them. To cure this, MacKay and Beach stopped pre-planning their entire concerts. “We like to improvise on different musical themes, like different genres, throughout our shows,” MacKay says. Based upon the audience’s reactions and possible requests, the two men get creative while under the lights. This is one of the keys to MacKay’s success: he never dwells on what might not be working on stage, but rather spins the music the opposite way, creating a wave of sounds that ring throughout the venue.
This creative ability to re-shape a concert during the live performance is difficult to maneuver. It takes careful consideration of one’s musical talents, but also sharp listening. MacKay and Beach concentrate on not only themselves onstage, but rather how those beyond the lights are interacting with them. Adding a component of improv to a concert oftentimes makes for an incredible show; however, it can also become a jumbled mess of chords and sounds not flattering to the ear. Yet not for MacKay and Beach. They have been adding this element of musical surprise to their concerts from the very beginning and it has proven to be a great addition to their shows.
“There’s going to be a lot of audience interaction,” says MacKay of this show, so be ready to meet the requinto and mingle with the artists.
January 16 at Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee, 2nd Floor, 10pm. $5 donation.