The Return of the Guitarist: McLaughlin is back in the music scene
Posted April 18, 2006
Billy McLaughlin stood alone in the center of the stage in the Rafters in blue jeans and a black shirt, holding his guitar. The room was dark except for the blue and red stage lights shining from behind on the guitarist. His hands were a blur of motion on his guitar, and the guitar sang. He swayed to the music he created, turned to the microphone and belted out the lyrics, â€śNot by power, not by might, but by spirit,â€? with prerecorded female vocal harmonies echoing him.
Such was the scene when McLaughlin performed at UMD earlier this month on Wednesday, April 5. He will be back in Duluth for a performance on Friday, April 21.
It looked so easy when McLaughlin performed at UMD on April 5, but because of a disorder called focal dystonia, playing guitar is more of a challenge for him than his performance lets on.
After becoming nationally renowned for his guitar playing, this disorder prevented him from performing for almost four years. His disability forced McLaughlin to start over by transitioning from playing right-handed to playing left-handed and by developing a different style that involves playing on the neck of the guitar.
â€śNone of these notes that I play come very easy. Itâ€™s like, OK, if Iâ€™m going to play this, itâ€™s going to be a note I really mean. There was a point not too long ago where I couldnâ€™t even play this damn note,â€? McLaughlin said with a laugh in a phone interview a week after his performance at UMD.
Because of that special attention he gives to every note, McLaughlin said he is also writing better music now compared to the material he wrote before the disorder threatened to end his career.
Focal dystonia is a disorder that affects the movement of one particular place of the human body. It is often times linked with small and repetitive movements and results in involuntary muscle spasms and tensions.
â€śBasically if youâ€™re a person who depends on a certain physical skill to make your living, focal dystonia will kick your ass because it takes away your ability to move freely,â€? as McLaughlin put it.
Justin Roth, a UMD graduate and a friend of McLaughlinâ€™s since before the disorder began to take its toll, worked for McLaughlin and also played guitar. Roth said in an email that Billyâ€™s music is as strong now as it ever was despite the effects of focal dystonia.
â€śItâ€™s almost like evolution,â€? Roth added. â€śHe has evolved his playing so the music he hears inside can survive. That to me only makes the music stronger.â€?
In order to make this comeback, McLaughlin had to be patient with himself while learning how to play guitar again, even when he did not feel he was good enough and cried while practicing.
â€śI didnâ€™t want to have this problem, but once I had it I figured I kind of had to get to know it as well as I could if I was ever going to find a way around it,â€? he said. â€śThatâ€™s just a humble left-handed guitarist talking. Iâ€™m still learning from the whole experience. Itâ€™s still affecting me now.â€?
McLaughlin has no intentions of letting this disorder slow him down. He hopes to start a guitar department at a college designed to instruct students on what he calls â€śunorthodoxâ€? uses of the guitar.
â€śItâ€™s just a piece of wood with a wire stretched over it - thatâ€™s all a guitar is,â€? he said â€śYou can make some absolutely freakinâ€™ incredible sounds on that.â€?
Other aspirations of his include touring nationally and playing with an orchestra. McLaughlin said that despite popular belief, the combination of a guitarist and an orchestra is no boring matter. He added that the steel-string guitar, which is the type he uses, is generally left out of any â€ślegitimate orchestral setting.â€?
â€śScrew that,â€? McLaughlin continued. â€śYou know what? Iâ€™m plugged into 6,000 watts of power when I play with an orchestra, and itâ€™s the coolest thing ever. It works in such a beautiful way.â€?
In the nearer future, McLaughlin will be performing in Duluth at the Sacred Heart Music Center on April 21 at 8:00 p.m. Opening for him is Jeff Arundel, whose music McLaughlin compared to James Taylorâ€™s. It will be a night of over an hour of acoustic guitar music by McLaughlin plus Arundelâ€™s performance with general admission tickets going for $15 and students tickets $10 with a student ID.
ON THE NET: http://www.billymclaughlin.com/ Billy McLaughlinâ€™s Web site