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Fiddling sweetheart a master on stage

Seven hundred fans, young and old, jammed into Red Deer’s Memorial Centre to see Canada’s fiddling sweetheart, Natalie MacMaster.

And from their exuberant response, a full 600 of them must have been ex-pat Nova Scotians.

“Anyone else here from Cape Breton?” asked MacMaster, prompting loud whoops from the crowd at Friday night’s concert. The place names shouted out included New Waterford, Baddeck, Glace Bay, Chéticamp, Iona, and Inverness,

MacMaster is from the rural community of Troy, N.S., where the age-old Celtic fiddling tradition still thrives at house parties and community dances.

She invited the Memorial Centre audience to pretend they were at a house party as they listened to her and her remarkably talented four-piece band.

“I don’t have kitchen parties, I have living room parties at my house,” she said — “although, you’d still have to come in through the kitchen.”

Fans didn’t have to strain their imaginations much as MacMaster and her supporting musicians provided a casual, yet high energy evening of traditional instrumental music that was transplanted from the Scottish Highlands to the eastern coast of Canada.

To add to the spontaneity, there was no set list for Friday’s concert. The 40-year-old fiddler apparently prefers to wing it, playing a different show every night.

Red Deer’s concert started with MacMaster playing a foot-stomping, rollicking reel, accented by the trill of the flute, played by another Cape Bretoner, Matt MacIssac.

MacIsaac later astounded us by playing two flutes in two different ranges at the same time — you almost had to see it to believe it.

A lovely reflective piano intro, performed by MacMaster’s Troy neighbour, Mac Morin, laid the framework for a quiet melody, which gradually gained more momentum and a new country feel — especially when Saskatchewan musician Shane Hendrickson jumped in with the electric bass guitar.

Percussionist Eric Breton, from Montreal was to compliment many of MacMaster’s fiddle tunes with interesting and unusual sound effects, including bongos, castanets and a wooden box with a playable lid.

The way he coaxed different sounds out of these simple instruments wowed the audience.

“You guys are great! What a nice, bubbly crowd,” said MacMaster, who’s touring with her eight-month-old baby. She explained her supportive husband, Donnell Leahy of the band Leahy, is home with their other four children.

“I’m wearing lipstick and sparkles. It’s almost like a day at the spa!” joked the mom-of-five, before demonstrating that she can still do a mean step dance — while playing lightning-fast fiddle.

MacMaster pulled off some jaw-dropping footwork. But she also hammed it up by doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and twirled her leg like Charlie Chaplin’s cane.

Not to be upstaged by his neighbour, Morin, who had earlier played an emotional piano solo, also did some impressive step dancing, all while holding on to the bottom of his tie to keep it from flopping around.

When a lady in the audience shouted for him to take off the tie, Moran did one better and took off his whole dress shirt and belt, strewing them across the stage.

“You’re getting a little peek at what we have to put up with,” said MacMaster, with a mock-weary chuckle.

She later got the crowd clapping during an infectious fiddling jig, accompanied by flute and banjo.

As well, she played a stirring Celtic song, which her grandma loved, while joined by MacIsaac on bagpipes. It was reminiscent of a Riverdance melody.

But perhaps the most affecting moment came in the second half of the concert when MacMaster and Morin jointly played Professor Blackie, written for Scottish scholar John Stuart Blackie, who died in 1895.

The tune was so stirring and wistful it made me wish that MacMaster had varied the pacing more often.

But the crowd really enjoyed her lively, toe-tapping numbers, including Hull’s Reel, written by the late John Morris Rankin, and the jaunty Calgary melody, Fly in the Pudding.

MacMaster proved her previous assertion (made in an interview) that a fiddle tune is a fiddle tune.

“Even I can hardly tell them apart sometimes . . . The key is in how you play it.”

Whether her delivery is purposely tongue-in-cheek or she puts her whole soul into the music, MacMaster is a highly engaging performer who’s probably loved as much for her down-to-earth stage presence as her impeccable fiddling.



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