To broadly paraphrase an old cliché, you can take the fiddler out of Cape Breton, but you can pretty much forget about the reverse.
For the majority of her highly physical sold-out performance last night at the Bomhard Theatre of the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, Canadian fiddler MacMaster upheld the spry, Scottish-bred stride of the music indigenous to her home : Cape Breton Island on Nova Scotia. Of course, that tradition was put through the stylistic ringer while the instrumentation supplied by her five-member band regularly shifted.
When she played off a remarkable 13 year old cellist named Nathaniel Smith, the resulting string sound became brightly animated. When MacMaster, who is also an accomplished step dancer, matched wits with Shania Twain drummer J.D. Blair, the gap between folk tradition and pop widened. At one point, MacMaster essentially clogged off of percussive funk grooves. But when she teamed with pianist Mac Morin on the playful Flea as a Bird and the lovely Johsefin’s Waltz, the glow of Cape Breton music was very much at hand.
Then there was Matt MacIsaac. Aside from adding to the lyrical color of the music on whistle and flute, as well as to its more Americanized rhythmic sway on banjo, MacIsaac detonated the evening’s most musical weapon of mass destruction: amplified bagpipes. They actually sounded quite at home in MacMaster’s cordial Cape Breton variations. But one had to wonder if audiences at the Kentucky Center’s downstairs Whitney Hall, where Phantom of the Opera was performing, appreciated the racket.
Think a subterranean ghoul is scary? That’s nothing compared to an electric Scotsman.
(photo of Natalie MacMaster by Richard Beland)