Natalie in motion--the only way you'll ever see her!

Natalie MacMaster
August 20, 2010
Calvin Theater
Northampton, MA

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been following Natalie MacMaster’s career for almost a quarter of a century. It seems like only yesterday she was a corkscrew-haired teen prodigy. Now she’s a mature 38, has three kids, and is introducing wunderkind of her own, including Emily Jean Flack, a sixteen-year-old niece who’s a singing and step-dancing sensation, and Nathaniel Smith, an accomplished cellist who is also just sixteen. But make no mistake—Natalie is still the star and when she turns it on, nothing stands in her way—not rising talent, not slick band members, not even a fourth child just three months from its debut.

As for turning it on, that took MacMaster all of about ten seconds during her recent show at the Calvin Theater. She stepped on stage, waved, and hit the gas. I once described MacMaster as a “musical perpetual motion machine” and that remains accurate. Two things happen when MacMaster puts bow to fiddle—the music flows like crashing waves and her body surfs the notes. To say that she moves with the music is the understatement of the year—Natalie MacMaster becomes the notes that pour from her instrument. Most of us joke about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but watch this gal for a few minutes and you will feel like the klutz in the bad joke. It’s not enough that she tears off jigs and reels with perfection and ease—she does so while step-dancing, clogging, moon-walking, and fancy dancing. You read that correctly—she plays and dances at the same time. When she wants to get really serious she puts down the bow and let’s her feet thunder to Thor-like cadences.

MacMaster enjoys the well-earned reputation of being the living exemplar of Cape Breton fiddling. It would, however, be a misrepresentation to hang an exclusive label on her current repertoire. To be sure, Cape Breton’s fast-paced reels, driving strathspeys, and energetic jigs continue to shape her set list, but MacMaster has expanded her horizons considerably. The Calvin show was shot full of jazz, Americana, pop, and experimental sounds. Her original tunes, once so identifiably Celtic, now use that core to create a global sound. And if your last experience seeing her on stage was as a shy and self-conscious twenty-something, you’ll be shocked to see how confident she’s become. She doesn’t merely play with the band, she orchestrates it and isn’t at all hesitant to fly across the stage to dual with her bass player, trade riffs with her pianist, make her cello player skedaddle up and down the strings, or challenge her drummer to match her clogging feet beat for beat. In short, Natalie MacMaster has become a spectacle to match her enormous musical prowess.

It makes sense in a way. Cape Breton music is fabulous fun, but it’s not known for being subtle. MacMaster threw out some astonishing runs, trills, and ornamentation, but her music always returned to its danceable roots. This was true even of the pieces that were clearly jazz-influenced. They began edgy and contemplative, but most of them finished with that full-bodied flourish that is MacMaster’s trademark. The audience clapped, swayed, tapped their feet, and cheered lustily. How not? MacMaster made it nearly impossible to sit still.

To be balanced, it was not a flawless performance. There were one or two transitions that seemed forced—as if the slower intro had to be overcome in order to get to the quicker-paced tunes. Paradoxically, there were also times in which the show appeared too slick—perfectly timed abrupt endings, dramatic poses, stagey interactions…. And though I think that Flack has an amazing voice for a sixteen-year-old, I just don’t think kids that young can really sing songs such as “When You’re Smiling” or “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Like most young singers, Flack hit the notes but missed the essence. Put simply, one needs more experience to sing jazz effectively and more depth to impress with a show tune. Flack was at her best showcasing her agile dancing ability, an activity at which she appeared accomplished rather than apprenticed.

But here’s the deal—these were things I noticed because it’s a critic’s job to notice them. Most of the large audience in attendance surrendered to the spectacle, and who can blame them? Even though not everything gelled, I can’t imagine that too many people left feeling as they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. Natalie MacMaster is, simply, one of the most electrifying performers you’ll ever see. If you get a chance to hear her before she takes time off to have her baby, by all means do so. Natalie MacMaster is an original talent—the sort best labeled a force of nature. As for nature, with all that jumping about I suspect the newest addition will dance its way out of the womb!

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