Natalie MacMaster,
(Rounder, 2002)

It can be hard to pick favorites. When the subject is fiddlers, the field is packed with so many talented performers, the task might seem insurmountable.

Unless you know Natalie.

There are a lot of reasons why Natalie MacMaster ranks among the very best of the world's fiddlers. A lot of those reasons can be heard on Live, her long-overdue concert CD.

Make that CDs. As if the concert recording from 2001 at the Living Arts Center in Mississauga, Ontario, wasn't enough, there's a second disc featuring Natalie going back to her roots for a dance at the Glencoe Mills dance hall in her native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in 1997. Combined, the package is a potent one-two punch of some of the best fiddling you're going to hear -- anywhere -- and it's a fair snapshot of the diverse work she's done over two decades of performing.

Disc one is Natalie at her most dazzling -- fiery stuff with her current touring band. She provides the fiddling, a bit of stepdancing and occasional commentary. With her are Allan Dewar on piano, Brad Davidge on guitars, John Chiasson on bass, Kim Dunn on keyboards, and Miche Pouliot and Daniel diSilva on percussion.

Anyone who's seen Natalie in concert knows the kind of energy that boils from the stage. Her fast sets are like lightning, powerful blasts of tunes that rouse the spirit and get the blood pumping faster. Her slower tunes, like her trademark "Blue Bonnets" represented here, well up with so much emotion, it's hard to believe she's working with just wood, wire and horse hair.

There's more than an hour of music, and there's not a sour note or a dry moment to be heard. Favorites are hard to pick, but I probably hit the "repeat" button most often for "The Fairy Dance" and "Tullochgorum." She also adds some international flair with "Torna a Surriento," which begins with an Italian melody and ends with a flamenco.

With Natalie's band kicking it up behind her and the crowd's appreciation roaring through the music, it's a concert CD to enjoy over and over again.

Then it's time to switch to disc two for a hearty taste of Cape Breton traditions. Natalie fronts a standard trio, with Dave MacIsaac on guitar and Joel Chiasson on piano for a series of lively dance sets. (As anyone remotely familiar with Cape Breton society knows, the Glencoe square dances are far removed from American square dancing and are guaranteed to provide a vigorous aerobic workout.)

The arrangements on this CD are more basic and the tempo is rock steady, providing the impetus for a hall full of dancers to keep their heels moving. It's pure Natalie all the way, reminding me strongly of the first few times I saw her perform with only MacIsaac and keyboardist Tracey Dares in support. A live recording of Natalie in this setting is a cultural treasure.

One of the joys of Natalie's music is the oh-gosh-I-do-this-for-a-living wonder that has added extra zing to her playing from the start. Live is the best of both worlds, giving Natalie MacMaster devotees and Cape Breton purists exactly what they want to hear. This set is a fiddle lover's dream come true.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 22 June 2002

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