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Giving the Gift of Christmastide: Billy McLaughlin & SimpleGifts

October 17, 2017

Lucky individuals who snag tickets for either of the two December 19, 2017 performances of “Christmastide” at the Ives Auditorium are in for a rare treat. Not only do they get to hear a talented pianist, Phil Thompson, but also the uniquely gifted SimpleGifts, featuring Billy McLaughlin. We recently had a chance to chat with Billy and learn more about what makes SimpleGifts so special.

Billy McLaughlin
Billy McLaughlin

Billy McLaughlin

Because Billy McLaughlin was a founding member of SimpleGifts, his story is key. Musically gifted from a young age, McLaughlin is a Twin Cities native who chose to further his guitar education at the University of Southern California.

Around that time, he developed his signature guitar playing style: putting both hands on the fretboard and employing “hammer-ons” and “pull-offs” to achieve a unique harp-like quality. In 1995, after earning multiple NACA Campus Entertainer awards, Billy signed a multi-album contract with Virgin Records’ Narada label.

His 1996 album, Fingerdance, rose to number 7 on the Billboard chart. He received widespread acclaim for his playing and was performing hundreds of shows each year. However, in the late 1990s, Billy began to struggle with one of his hands. For two years he found himself increasingly debilitated by muscle spasms and contractions that robbed him of his former prowess.

Finally, in 2001, the Mayo Clinic confirmed that Billy had a neuromuscular disorder called focal dystonia. Focal dystonia is a disorder focused on just one body part—in this case, the hand. Symptoms include fingers that involuntarily curl, or shake or freeze. Dystonia occurs when the way in which nerves communicate with the brain suddenly changes. It can be related to an underlying medical condition or be of unknown origin.


Billy’s health crisis forced him to dial back his schedule and shift his focus to less strenuous types of playing. As he says, “I was looking for ways to continue musicianship without being a guitar gunslinger every night.” He was drawn to the idea of sharing music with other like-minded musicians and joined up with vocalist Carin Vagle, pianist and Celtic flute player Jeni-Lyn Starr and percussionist Billy Oehrlein later in 2001.

Because of the season, the new group’s first CD, A SimpleGift, was a compilation of Christmas music. With help from Billy’s church, grassroots support for the group began to build, and SimpleGifts was born. During the last 16 years, the group has grown and changed, but holds fast to the ideals from its founding.

SimpleGifts takes its Celtic focus from group members’ Irish heritage, and maintains a high-quality, authentic sound. With a violin, Celtic whistle, keyboard, percussion and acoustic guitar (as well as three talented vocalists), SimpleGifts creates both a modern, yet Old World sound. One local reviewer described the group’s 2013 release, WinterGrace, as “one of the most elegant and listenable Christmas collections of this or any year.” The goal of SimpleGifts, Billy asserts, is to “bring the joy” of the season and a sense of community to its audiences.

Billy McLaughlin and Billy Oehrlein are the only two members from the original group. The rest of the 2017 group includes:

Heather Moen on vocals and violin;

Laura MacKenzie on wooden flute, whistles, concertina and bagpipes;

Karen Paurus on vocals; and

Amy Courts on vocals and melodica.


Phil Thompson

As you might expect with a show titled “Christmastide,” SimpleGifts will be performing traditional hymns and other Christmas music. Billy hastens to make clear, however, that every song, due to its “meticulous arrangement” is going to “feel a little different than everything you’ve heard before.” Just think Modern Christmas with an old-world flavor.

Before SimpleGifts takes the stage, pianist Phil Thompson will perform his section of the concert. Billy has known Phil for a few years and welcomes this chance to perform at the same venue. In fact, this is the first time that SimpleGifts has shared the stage with another musician, and the first time they have played a matinee show.

Christmastide will be performed twice on Tuesday, December 19, 2017. Learn more and order tickets by clicking here and scrolling down to the show. If you would like to reserve space for a group, just click on the green Group Tickets button or call 952-948-6506.

Here’s a preview of what you can expect:

Giving the Gift of Christmastide: Billy McLaughlin & SimpleGifts

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