SimpleGifts to bring present of holiday music to Memorial AuditoriumGroup will perform next Thursday in Worthington
WORTHINGTON — What do Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kermit the Frog have in common? They all play the guitar left-handed. Ten years after being diagnosed with focal dystonia, so does Billy McLaughlin.
WORTHINGTON — What do Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kermit the Frog have in common? They all play the guitar left-handed.
Ten years after being diagnosed with focal dystonia, so does Billy McLaughlin.
A five-time Minnesota Music Award winner, McLaughlin grew up in south Minneapolis, then left Minnesota for California and college. Six years later, he returned to Minnesota and started a national tour through the college market.
Employing what would become his signature style of placing both hands on the fret board, McLaughlin began composing for his first release using a technique of “hammer-ons” and “pull-offs” that create a harp-like effect on the acoustic guitar. In 1995, McLaughlin signed a multi-album international contract with Virgin Records label Narada. His first release, “Fingerdance,” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.
He toured and recorded for more than a decade, then started to notice a physical problem. He was slowly becoming unable to play his own music. In 2001, McLaughlin was diagnosed with focal dystonia, an incurable neuromuscular disease that caused the muscle in his left hand to curl and seize.
“I had to totally rebuild my career,” he said simply during a recent interview with the Daily Globe.
It may sound like a basic plan, but relearning his techniques and teaching himself to play left-handed was anything but easy. He began playing his distinctive hammering style with the neck of his guitar toward his right shoulder. He returned to performing publicly in 2006 both solo and with his band.
“Adapting is what life is all about,” McLaughlin said. “I had to learn that in a really dramatic way, but it’s something you hope you can be good at in other areas of your life, too. When things don’t go exactly the way you want them to, you try to make the best of it.”
McLaughlin and five others form the group SimpleGifts, which has just entered its ninth touring season. For the first time, it will be performing at the Memorial Auditorium in Worthington at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1. Tickets can be reserved by calling the ticket office at 376-9101.
SimpleGifts is a six-piece ensemble led by McLaughlin that features arranged acoustic instrumental and vocal music for the Christmas season. The other members include Jeni-Lyn Starr, Heather Garborg, Karen Paurus, Carin Vagle and Billy Oerhlein.
“I love this group,” McLaughlin said. “We come at a holiday repertoire a little differently than some groups. We really focus on music that tells the real Christmas story — traditional carols and hymns — but we do them in a modern way that features Celtic whistles, violins, beautiful vocals, the guitar and percussion. The arrangements are really unique.”
He started SimpleGifts because he couldn’t play some of the complicated music he was known for, but the project has really taken off, he said.
Songs such as “O Holy Night,” “Carol of the Bells” and “Mary Did You Know” attract a broad fan base, with the group performing what McLaughlin calls “old world modern versions” of the familiar tunes.
“One of the challenges of music that’s been recorded a thousand times is to come up with an arrangement that makes you say, ‘We didn’t just copy someone else — this is a great arrangement,’” he explained. “There aren’t many modern Christmas songs that caught our attention, and we don’t do Frosty and Rudolph and Santa.”
Although SimpleGifts has a 2012 goal of recording an album of other material, right now the group enjoys getting together for six weeks out of each year to play Christmas music together. The upcoming tour includes 24 concerts in 28 days.
“We’re happy to be coming to a new market,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve never played Worthington before, and it is so great to come across these venues like the Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center.”
Back when he was still right-handed, he said, he purchased a tour bus. After his diagnosis, he kept the bus, so the group will hit the road.
“We have this lighting truck that follows us. The production part will make a big impression,” he said. “We bring a set with us, have a lighting director and additional lights, all to create a really beautiful experience.”
With each of the group members involved in their own projects other times of the year, they really their holiday tour.
“Its part of what keeps the group fun and fresh,” he admitted. “We love each other a lot, but don’t get to see each other often. We dive into the period of intense playing, and it is so much fun.”