Review by Fred Rudofsky
Natalie MacMaster is a walking endorsement for all that is good about music. A virtuoso fiddler, exuberant bandleader and deft step dancer (the latter explains how she’s kept a perfect figure despite five children, the latest born just a few months ago), she embraces her Cape Breton traditions and yet is not afraid to add in a contemporary wrinkle or two. A favorite of audiences at The Egg in Albany for a decade, MacMaster brought her talented band and three surprise guests on stage for two engaging sets billed as “Christmas in Cape Breton,” complete with trees and modest holiday lighting.
Master cellist Nathaniel Smith opened with a plaintive take on “Greensleeves,” as the other band members took their places. MacMaster sprinted out, fiddle in hand, to lead the band in a medley of traditional reels and jigs. After she offered greetings from Cape Breton, MacMaster jumped on to Eric Breton’s drum riser for a Dougie MacPhee “clog.” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” was jaunty, not schmaltzy; likewise, “Silver Bells” was invigorated by an imaginative arrangement and fine piano playing by Mac Morin; and “Winter Wonderland” became a spry, jazzy ode to the season, with MacMaster tapping into her inner Stephane Grappelli.
MacMaster took a breather to offer the hilarious back story to the three centuries old lament for a second wife (“booze”) by Robert Cormac; she, Morin and Smith interwove the melody lines with the ease that comes from countless jam sessions. She followed that with a solo step dance number, tapping with wit and boundless energy, later joking that it was all part of her “post-maternity workout.” Without missing a beat, she introduced three of her children – two played fiddle, and all three danced and sang (“Santa
Claus Is Coming to Town”) – prompting an ovation from the crowd. Sharing stories about her grandparents’ love of “jigs,” MacMaster launched into the aptly-named “Volcanic Jig,” which closed out the first set.
The second set picked up where the first left off, mixing traditional tunes from Cape Breton with holiday songs. Oddly, the only miscue was guitarist Nate Douglas’ take on John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” perhaps done this evening in remembrance of the 32nd anniversary of Lennon’s murder in NYC. Douglas’ guitar was understated, but his vocal was weak, and what should have been a natural song to get a crowd singing along failed to do so. “Get Me through December,” based on a traditional tune reworked for an Alison Krauss project many years ago, fared much better, and “O Holy Night” featured some fine string snapping by Smith. Drummer Eric Breton showed off some killer rhythms tapping away on a Peruvian collection box before the band regrouped for a vivacious take on “Pretty Mary.”
Called out for an encore, a dancing MacMaster darted around the stage, jamming with each musician in a medley of styles too numerous to mention, and keeping the standing crowd clapping for the duration. It’s safe to say that the holiday spirit washed over all in attendance.
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Fiddle virtuoso Natalie MacMaster walked the line between tradition and a high-energy performance during her return trip Saturday night to The Egg’s Hart Theatre and excelled on both counts. For two sets and more than two hours, MacMaster and her top notch band plied a fairly even mix of holiday favorites and traditional fiddle tunes from MacMaster’s native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. But everything here sounded of a piece, anchored by the band’s muscular rhythms and brought to life by MacMaster’s exciting playing. Throughout the evening, the audience, which filled maybe three-quarters of the venue, clapped and cheered its approval, giving more than a few standing ovations over the course of the performance.”