Gothic Theater, Denver 30 October 1999
By Ellen Rawson
It was the night before Halloween at the Gothic Theater, where black and white skeletons hung at each end of the stage. When Natalie MacMaster entered playing her fiddle and wearing red and black with red and yellow stage lights flashing, I knew it was going to be a stimulating evening.
MacMaster began dancing towards the end of her first tune. An accordion solo by Steve O’Connor led to a transition. The musicians picked up the already fast-moving pace, the lights flashed, and MacMaster’s eyes twinkled as if to say, “Well, here goes,” and she started dancing in a circle. The crowd’s approval was immediate, and we were rewarded with a happy wave.
I have seen Natalie MacMaster perform on numerous occasions, and while I never could call her reticent, she seemed, if possible, even more animated than usual this night. The show did not sell out officially, but it certainly felt that way what with chairs jammed in every which way at the recently renovated Gothic.
Brad Davidge’s bluesy acoustic guitar accompanied MacMaster on the second tune, but the blues twinge faded to folk quickly. Already, crowd members were dancing along the side aisles. It was a red devil fiddle night as MacMaster fiddled while dancing backwards.
“All I can say is, it’s good to be back,” MacMaster cried between gulps of water. She explained that they’d been back in her home province of Cape Breton the previous week — gigging, she assured us, and they’d just flown in to Denver that day after some shows along the East Coast. She returned quickly to the music, though, to “Josephine’s Waltz,” a Scottish tune she’d learned from a Canadian fiddler in Nashville, who had, in turn, learned it from an Irish fiddler. (MacMaster’s tunes tend to come to her in fairly complicated, yet interesting, processes.) It was paired with “Flamenco Fling,” learned from Chicago’s Jesse Cook. She paused to explain that she and Cook had performed it last March on the Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys), and she had received her first Juno that night.
“Yes, Celine was there,” she said with a laugh, referring to Canadian diva Celine Dion. “She was all nervous. I said, ‘Come on, now, calm down!’”
“We need three chairs,” she announced after the laughter died down. “We’re going to take things into the kitchen.” John Dymond on bass, Brad Davidge on acoustic guitar, and MacMaster on fiddle remained onstage for a more intimate number after the rest of the band departed. Keyboardist Mac Morin, however, later re-appeared to stepdance.
While MacMaster’s fiddle dominated the evening, she always was gracious to her band. Three relatively new band members, Morin, O’Connor, and Davidge (who has toured previously with Cape Bretoner Mary Jane Lamond) added their own feel to the show. With each successive recording and tour, MacMaster’s style has been edging away from “pure” traditional folk and adding different ethnic influences (such as flamenco) and even more rock ‘n roll sounds what with an electric guitar and a complete drum set. Her days of touring solo are long gone. Her Denver audience, however, did not mind. Rather than questioning these additions, they seemed to savor them instead.
The entire band, drums and all, cooked on “Welcome to the Trossachs,” written by a cousin of MacMaster’s who played with the Cape Breton Orchestra. MacMaster, for the first time that evening, seem subdued, but Morin’s keyboards soared. MacMaster’s energy resumed, however, for “Bluebonnets over the Border,” a favorite tune she’s recorded twice.
“Oh, great!” she exclaimed with chagrin. “Did anybody see this? For how long?” she asked with a laugh. MacMaster pointed out a now-revealed bra strap. Apparently, dissatisfied with those white straps against the red tunic’s straps, she took the band’s advice and covered them with black gaffer (electrical) tape, which had fallen off of one strap. “Everyone said that no one would notice,” she said as she laughed and wondered if someone in the audience would email her mother that night with the story. MacMaster didn’t lose her composure, however. She felt at ease sharing her momentary embarrassment with the crowd and seemed to enjoy laughing at herself prior to playing the last medley (tunes learned from the late Cape Breton fiddler Angus Chisholm) prior to the break.
MacMaster’s amazing energy level did not subside after the break. The second set started slowly, with just MacMaster and Davidge on stage. This opening number featured a rock beat, which while unexpected from a CapeBreton fiddler, led into “In My Hands,” her new CD’s title track and homage to her fiddle. For the first time, MacMaster’s voice is heard on her recordings as she speaks lines of reverence to her chosen instrument. This song has the potential to become a crossover hit –traditional Celtic-style fiddle meets pop/rock in an Ashley MacIsaac (another Cape Bretoner) sort of way.
Everyone but the drummer then exited the stage. It was Tom Roach’s turn to add to the non-traditional instrumentation with an unexpected rock-type drum solo. MacMaster, re-entered, however, and began to stepdance slowly. As the drumbeats subsided, MacMaster, lips pursed, moved her feet faster and added kicks as she danced in a circle as the resuming drums and flashing lights recreated the feel of being under the Big Top and watching the acrobat perform. MacMaster kicked and jumped her way across the stage; this woman stepdances with an attitude. As Morin and Davidge returned, she picked up her fiddle and played near them. The whole scene felt like a choreographed play, but it didn’t come across as too set. There are times when the show seemed slick and polished, but then there were the moments when I still felt as if I were in the kitchen with them. MacMaster truly is an all-around entertainer; she’s not “merely” a fiddler anymore.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she warned us. ”You may experience an intense craving for doughnuts,” she said prior to playing the tune she’d performed on Canadian television as an advertisement for Tim Horton Donuts. Another new accomplishment she discussed was her enjoyable experience in Nashville when Allison Kraus sang on “Get Me Through December,” an old fiddle tune (“Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife”) to which Gordie Sampson and Fred Lavery added words. “It was a dream,” she gushed happily. Since Kraus couldn’t be there that night, MacMaster and the band performed an instrumental version.
After a standing ovation, MacMaster returned for an encore and to invite everyone to dance with her. To make that easier, she raced into the audience. Female performers don’t often do that, but MacMaster’s obvious comfort level with her audiences permit her the confidence to play her fiddle in the middle of a packed house.
When she finally wound up back onstage to dance some more and complete the finale, her bow was barely hanging in there (I always wonder if her bow will make it through the night), but her spirit was intact. Morin and O’Connor played dueling keyboards to the very end, and MacMaster let out a scream. Yes, indeed, it was the night before Halloween, and MacMaster had whipped her Gothic Theater audience into a frenzy.
For more information visit http://www.nataliemacmaster.com