Natalie MacMaster,
No Boundaries
(MacMaster Music/Wea, 1996)

There isn't much that could have kept me from trudging a few hundred yards through the mud to see Eileen Ivers perform live at the 1998 Guinness Fleadh in New York City. Something that could -- and did -- prevent that messy trip through the rain-soaked morass that was New York's Randall Island was Natalie MacMaster.

MacMaster is without question one of the top modern fiddlers (and stepdancers, too) to come from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia -- a veritable breeding ground for fiddlers indeed! Steeped in the Cape Breton traditions (Scottish fiddle styles honed through generations of living, working and playing on Canada's eastern shore), she has stepped forward to show the world just what she can do with a few pounds of wood and steel.

Joining her on several tracks are guitarist Dave MacIsaac and keyboardist Tracey Dares. Those two musicians (who also have toured extensively with Natalie) provide perhaps the purest, simplest framework for her music. But MacMaster doesn't limit herself to a single style here.

The album is certainly dominated by traditional sets expertly executed, among them "The Honeysuckle Set," "My Friend Buddy" and "Paddy LeBlanc's Set." But MacMaster also demonstrates her ability to stretch beyond her traditions and incorporate modern influences into her arrangements. "Reel Beatrice" is a good example of a jazz-Celtic fusion, and "Catharsis" can be easily classified as fiddle rock. The solemn and sweeping air "Silverwells" pairs MacMaster with an orchestra of seven violinists, two viola players and two cellists, and "The Beaumont Rag" crosses the line into Texas swing.

The liveliest track on the album, occasionally heard on nightclub dance floors, is "The Drunken Piper," featuring MacMaster's fiddle, Gaelic vocals by guest singer Cookie Rankin (from the famed Rankin Family) and a synthesized backdrop.

The only track which falters here is "Fiddle & Bow," a lovely song (written for Natalie and sung by fellow Cape Bretoner Bruce Guthro) by itself, but which seems out of place in the context of this album. (Apologies to Guthro, but it also leans a little too far towards country for my tastes. Of course, Cape Bretoners seem unreasonably fond of American country music anyway.)

No Boundaries is a must-have for fans of the Celtic fiddle, and particularly those who love the Cape Breton styles. And Natalie MacMaster is certainly a name to watch for. I truly believe she'll be remembered as one of the great fiddlers of our age.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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