[8 January 2007]
Natalie MacMaster is from my own stomping grounds on Cape Breton Island. The relative of fiddling great Buddy MacMaster and a cousin of Ashley MacIsaac, the young MacMaster seemed to take the high road while MacIsaac seemed to burn brightly but burn out just as quickly. Slowly but steadily, MacMaster continued to break new ground, expand her horizons, and attract larger audiences. The first album from MacMaster in a couple of years finds her sticking to what she does best, namely reels, jigs, laments, and anything else that would fit perfectly into any Maritime, East Coast, or Atlantic Canadian “kitchen party.”
MacMaster wastes no time getting into her niche with the bouncy and fluid “Volcanic Jig”, which is given a slightly classical feeling over the Celtic overtones thanks to cellist Rushad Eggleston, who seems to veer from a slow, deliberate style of playing to a rather frantic, vibrant, and energetic mode. And MacMaster, like so many other fiddlers, relishes in the fact that Eggleston can handle some lead duties during the middle portion. Think of something along the lines of Celtic Woman or Altan and you should get the gist of this song’s energy and flow before breaking open for a fine finale. From there, MacMaster changes gears somewhat with the reflective “NPG”, a string of three reels or jigs fused together starting off with the slow but toe-tapping “The Sunday Reel” featuring a dueling fiddle/bagpipe portion with Matt MacIsaac. Here the music is a bit more genre-crossing and seems to fall more into the “world/pop/adult contemporary” realm. But MacMaster is just as strong here as ever in terms of his playing, even when the tune takes a somewhat funky detour.
MacMaster has never been one to shy from different styles or genres, and the slow, shuffling and jaunty “Flea As a Bird” hops around as quickly as the aforementioned insect on a hot shovel. There’s a bit of Western swing in the track that the musician seems to lap up eagerly. From there it morphs quickly into a train-chugging number that picks up speed and never seems to slow down. Again, there are three, wait, four songs coming into the mix, with “Flea As a Bird Clog” giving way to “The Night We Had the Goats Reel”, which is another traditional piece. The first song that doesn’t quite fit the happy-go-lucky domain is “Farewell to Peter”, a tender lament that has MacMaster accompanied by Eggleston and guitarist Brad Davidge. It’s sweet and to the point, although it does nothing to add to MacMaster’s existing mastery of such a number.
What is interesting is the somewhat edgier, rougher, and ragged rock-Celtic feeling behind “Matt & Nat’s”, a song that could have been inspired by listening to Ashley MacIsaac’s earlier rock-oriented albums. But things get very strange quickly thereafter when “Danny Boy”, the traditional classic, is performed. Performers include MacMaster on fiddle and Michael McDonald on lead vocals. Michael McDonald? Doobie Brother Michael McDonald? Yes and … well, it’s not good. Not by a long, sling, or even a scatter shot. Although the mood is haunting and sparse, McDonald sounds like he’s completely and utterly lost on this track, even more than usual. While he still has that soulful quality to his voice, it’s a track that doesn’t work for some people, especially McDonald and someone like Dr. John.
MacMaster returns to her strengths and atones for this miscue with “Cape Classico”, a slightly flamenco-tinged fiddle feel that weaves its way around a simple but elegant arrangement. After this slight interlude, she counts in another change and takes things back into more of folksy, Celtic flavoring. Possibly the prettiest number here is the Parisian-sounding “Julia’s Waltz” that has a fine supporting blueprint composed of acoustic guitar and accordion. It’s on this track where MacMaster is basically front and centre throughout, with some of the sweetest notes on the album performed in a span of about two to three minutes.
The album concludes with an “Interlude”, perhaps an oddly named tune for the closing track. Nonetheless, MacMaster delivers another sweet track that is basically here thanking the fans for the album and the musicians who make it possible. It’s an interesting touch and could be a forerunner of acceptance speeches that could result from this finely-crafted album. It’s one John Allan Cameron, yet another relative of Natalie MacMaster, would be proud of.