The holiday music season is in full swing, as evidenced by the 24-7 yuletidings of KOOL 108, but hark! under the Ho Ho Ho radar comes one of the most elegant and listenable Christmas collections of this or any year in “WinterGrace” from the Billy McLaughlin-led local collective SimpleGifts.
Co-produced by McLaughlin and Jeff Arundel, “WinterGrace” is a hushed affair that delicately soars on the strength of soulful vocal performances from area songstresses Ashleigh Still, Torie Redpath, and Amy Courts, and Celtic flares conjured by tin whistle/bagpipe player Laura McKenzie. Over the course of 11 tracks, an Old World magic is achieved, and the CD as a whole begs repeated meditative listenings in the darkness and dead of winter.
“At the heart of the Christmas message, which is where all of these songs come from, there is a message of redemption, of renewal, of, ‘Things are gonna start over again now,’ and the songs we share with people give them hope,” said McLaughlin, sitting in the group’s tour bus Friday night outside St. Stephen’s Church in Bloomington before one of the group’s many live dates in December.
“Christmas is a time of hope. At the darkest time of year, the shortest days, the least amount of light, the message (of light) comes out in the darkness.”
SimpleGifts is in its 11th year, and “WinterGrace” is the collective’s fifth and finest effort, offering up a truly original alternative to the annual Christmas music glut. The title track is an undiscovered gem penned by Appalachian folk music pioneer Jean “The Mountain Queen” Ritchie, and luminous versions of standards such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Little Drummer Boy” shine forth with an innate spirituality – perhaps because most of the players grew up performing and singing in their respective churches.
“Part of the problem with the Christmas repertoire, which has been worked over a million times, is number one to find some gems that no one has ever heard, but also if you do something like ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ you’ve got to find some kind of twinkly thing to add to that piece,” said McLaughlin. “I feel like we did it on every single one of the tracks; we’ve got something that sparkles in a way that no one else paid attention to.
“We’re not in the pop/consumer side of this, we’re into the deep message of the music. People are excited to hear traditional instruments, traditional song choices. … It’s kind of like what Linus said when he gets into quoting scripture. It’s cool. People have a heart for this, and they’re not finding it out there, because you know what? No one else is doing it out there but us.”