Both Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles have made purely solo records, but they seem to be the types of musicians who thrive in collaborative settings. So, it makes sense that they’d join forces eventually — and their duo debut is as good as you could hope for. As its title suggests, Keys unlocks all kinds of musical doors, welcoming the listener into spaces that are alternately joyous and mournful, weird and deep. Make yourself right at home. The LP kicks off with “Idumea,” a minor-key re-imagining of the “Amazing Grace” melody, Bowles’ banjo melting perfectly into MacKay’s steady acoustic guitar. Instantly, you’re hooked. From there, the pair travel to various zones, at times conjuring up a classic Carter Family vibe at others drifting into territories staked out by Bruce Langhorne’s genius Hired Hand soundtrack. The mood is laid-back but focused, earthy but exploratory. There are a handful of sweet vocal numbers, but the real pleasure here is hearing Bowles and MacKay communicate without words, finding a middle ground where both musicians can rise and shine.
For more Bowles, definitely scoop up the latest Black Twig Pickers LP — it might be the long-running Virginia collective’s best effort yet. Also featuring Mike Gangloff (Pelt), Sally Anne Morgan (House and Land) and Isak Howell, plus added friends and family, Friend’s Peace is a thoroughly terrific collection of folk music, loving and reverent towards its sources but bursting with imagination and freshness. These players know how to locate the heart and soul of such tried-and-true numbers as “Moonshiner” and “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” without falling into sepia-toned reenactments or old-timey cliches. In the Pickers’ expert hands, these ancient songs come to life in vivid color, past and present blending together thanks to communal harmonies or a stirring fiddle drones. | t wilcox