Presented by World Music/Crasharts Festival: Winter/Spring 2013
Review by Craig Idebrook
(Cambridge) When done right, there is something so unpretentiously fun about the Celtic music that comes from the little Nova Scotian island of Cape Breton. Rooted in Scottish musical traditions and honed in kitchen parties on long winter nights, it is a musical form that is vibrant, heartfelt and accessible. And few Cape Breton products so embody the spirit of this musical scene better than Natalie MacMaster, a world-class fiddler from world-class fiddling stock.
During her concert at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MacMaster showcased the wonder of Cape Breton’s musical scene. Her reels and jigs showed off how maritime music wears its heart on its sleeves in a no-nonsense way, with sweet and sweeping melodies that avoid some of the overdone marshal tendencies that can infect branches of the Gaelic scene. The Cape Breton sound is designed for listeners who want to get to the point and hear the best of what a fiddle can do, and MacMaster did not disappoint.
Her playing was crisp, but she never let perfection get in the way of having a good time. And she made the hallowed stage at Harvard University her own by whirling and stomping with most of her tunes. MacMaster created her sound partly by demanding a deep onstage connection with her backup band, and they had nowhere to hide from the fiddler when she wanted their focus. Luckily, they obviously were handpicked to have fun onstage themselves, and they dodged and weaved and improvised and smiled right alongside her.
The concert became a family affair, as MacMaster’s brood, now living in Ontario, met her in Boston. She was joined onstage first by her husband, Ontario fiddler Donnell Leahy, and then by three of her five children for an amazing little fiddle and step-dancing recital. Leahy played like he was wrestling with the devil, each note searing and haunting in a style that felt more Old World than MacMaster’s, but the highlight of the night was when they were joined by the children, all under seven. Although the tunes were simpler when the family played together, there was a sweet synergy of four fiddles just trying to kick a tune out. (The youngest did not pick up the bow, but whirled like her mother.) It was during this family reel that one could glimpse the Cape Breton musical scene at its most pure, and you could almost smell the oatcakes baking on a cold winter’s night.