Natalie MacMaster
at Upper Dublin High School,
Fort Washington, PA
(1 May 1999)

It's too rarely true among performers, but with Natalie MacMaster there is no doubt: the show gets better and better every time I see her.

A two-hour drive to Fort Washington, Pa., was a small price to pay to see MacMaster perform for the fourth time in as many years. She has been, without exception, one of the most talented and energetic fiddlers I've ever had the pleasure to watch in action; combined with a darling stage personality and a crackerjack band behind her, Natalie is must-see music in action.

Fresh from receiving a Juno Award for the best instrumental recording -- specifically, for her back-to-the-basics traditional album My Roots Are Showing -- Natalie put on a tremendous show, filling the too-few hours with fiddle tunes primarily from Scotland, Ireland and her native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

A high school auditorium isn't the first place I'd choose to see Natalie perform -- for one thing, it restricts the audience to uncomfortable seating when the natural tendency is to move to her music -- but she easily packed the Bucks County venue to full capacity. With her four-man band already on stage and playing, Natalie began the show offstage, starting a slow air just beyond view and wandering into the spotlight with her audience already applauding madly. It didn't take her long to kick the slow air into overdrive, matching her fast-paced fiddling with a high-kicking dance.

Movement is a big part of a MacMaster performance. As if her fiddling alone wasn't enough of a treat, she is unable to resist the temptation to dance to her own music. And what a dancer she is! During all but the slowest of tunes, Natalie is a body in motion: clogging, tapping, stepping, skipping, high-kicking, moonwalking and generally bouncing her way around the stage. Saturday was no exception, with mass of long blond curls and long legs flying everywhere and the blue sequins of her sleeveless blouse glinting in the stage lights. Natalie has a real flair for performing and, after a quick change during intermission, she was even able to make a very ... interesting pair of red-and-yellow checked pants look good. Her flying fingers and feet left me breathless.

As a fiddler myself, I haven't a clue how she keeps her bow on her strings while dancing, hopping and cavorting around the stage. At times, Natalie's hand and bow were moving too fast to see clearly, but she never stopped keeping a vigorous rhythm with her feet and hips.

I have no idea what goes through her mind while performing, but Natalie has the benefit of looking supremely confident in the spotlight. This is the fourth time I've seen her perform, and she has been more assured and exhibited more stage presence each time. At the same time, she still manages to look bashful during applause, and she sometimes displays looks of fierce concentration despite her effortless playing. Her easy manner of chatting with her audience is also admirable ... and somehow, she always seems to find a Cape Breton connection in the crowd. "It's amazing, the people Cape Breton has put into the world," she told her Upper Dublin audience. "It's not very big."

But even excellent motor skills and stage personality pale when compared to Natalie's knack for making her fiddle sing. I think I'd trade half of my soul for a tenth of her talent. But I digress.

I'd been accustomed to hearing Natalie perform accompanied only by keyboardist Tracey Dares and guitarist Dave MacIsaac. The change, not only replacing Dares and MacIsaac but adding a percussionist and bass player to the lineup as well, took some getting used to. OK -- no offense, Tracey and Dave, because I always admired your talents -- it took only a few minutes. The new MacMaster Live experience is electrifying. Natalie has stepped with ease into the next level of musical growth without losing one iota of her traditional roots.

Backing her on this tour was a fine foursome of Canadian lads. Chris Corrigan led the pack with his wicked-good folk guitar stylings, nicely filling the gap left by MacIsaac. Tom Roach on percussion and John Dymond on the five-string bass guitar added new drive and a modern flair to the show without taking anything away from its kitchen party comfort. Joel Chiasson rounded out the band, both with his excellent keyboarding and some fleet-footed stepdancing as well. For one tune, he and Natalie both stepped away from their instruments to sashay, step and swing together with alarming grace.

Despite a delightful turn as Fiddle Spice (Yes, it's true, she sang a snippet of a Spice Girls song, if only to try and convince the audience that she couldn't sing), Natalie still wouldn't croon "The Cuckoo" for her fans. We bear her no grudge, however, because she played it as an amazingly beautiful instrumental, with a gorgeous, ethereal air that left my heart in my throat. She also transformed "Blue Bonnets Over the Border," which she'd recorded on No Boundaries as a lively jig, into a serene and stately air.

But don't even imagine this was a slow-paced show. Natalie slipped a few calmer numbers into the set to give her audience's -- and perhaps her own -- collective heart a chance to slow its furious beating, but the bulk of Saturday's performance was nothing short of frenzied. Tunes like the rockin' "Catharsis" and lively "Honeysuckle" set kept the crowd clapping, tapping and chair-bopping along for an aerobic workout kind of evening.

A standing ovation at the end brough Natalie and the boys back out for an encore as fresh as the show's start -- if anything, they were more energetic for the furious wrap-up set. Natalie even played the Pied, uh, Fiddler and led a few dozen wildly dancing young girls onto the stage for the big finish. Still, it was all over too soon.

There are many fine fiddlers on the market these days, many taking both the instrument and traditional playing styles in new directions. But even as fellow Cape Bretoner Ashley MacIsaac pushes the Celtic fiddle into rockier realms and Eileen Ivers explores the fusion between the Irish fiddle and jazz, MacMaster continues to move in the direction I'd most like to see the music go. She is, I believe, the freshest thing playing, and I eagerly await the next development in her career. Saturday's concert was certainly an exciting benchmark along the way.

Kudos also go to Bob Brown of Cricklewood Productions, not only for bringing Natalie to Upper Dublin but for his ongoing efforts to import quality Celtic music into south-central Pennsylvania.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Read reviews of Natalie's recordings here.