Natalie MacMaster @ Claremont Opera House 28 May 09

Picture 3When Natalie MacMaster walks on stage, anything can happen.

As she and husband Donnell Leahy neared the end of their TED Conference segment a few years back, the chirpy host announced a delay.

“We have ten more minutes,” he reported, almost giddy with excitement.

MacMaster, momentarily flustered, flashed a nervous smile and responded with a phrase that fans of the Cape Breton fiddle master know well:

“All right, okay!  Let’s get ‘er going!”

Hearing familiar notes from her husband’s fiddle, she flapped her arms in a brief chicken dance.

She then rewarded the audience with a lively, leg-swaying (and barefoot) step dance, followed by a stunning bit of piano improvisation, while Leahy played along.

This spontaneous streak runs through everything Natalie MacMaster does.   Her name is synonymous with her native Cape Breton; she is the Canadian island’s most fervent musical ambassador.

But over a career spanning eight studio albums, with a new one due this fall, she’s crossed styles with happy abandon.

She’s dabbled in rock on “Catharsis” (from 1997’s “No Boundaries), mixed Celtic rhythms with electronica (and rap!) on “In My Hands” (from the 1999 album of the same name), and worked with talented Nashville players on the bluegrass-textured “Blueprint” in 2004.

Last year, she performed on Yo-Yo Ma’s Christmas album, which included a stunning collaboration with the cellist and fellow genre-bender Alison Krauss.

Writing about her most recent release, one critic said it “doesn’t deviate from her usual formula, but considering the fact that her ‘usual formula’ consists of filtering traditional Celtic music through the open-ended sieves of jazz, rock, country and Latin, the results are far from predictable.”

“I am a very musical person,” MacMaster said in a recent interview. “I love music, and I don’t just love Cape Breton fiddling, although it’s my favorite.  I love jazz and pop rock and country. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Anne Murray — if I hear something really great … I want to be a part of it.”

Among the many standouts on her latest album (“Yours Truly”) are the rocking “Matt & Nat’s” and MacMaster’s duet with singer Michael McDonald, the traditional standard “Danny Boy.”

Though MacMaster has made many trips to the area over the years, this is her first Claremont appearance since 2000.

“When you return to the same area a few times, you get that frequent rapport with the public and the fans of the music along with having a certain warmth when you walk onstage,” she said recently.

In 2004, MacMaster had further kind words for Twin State music fans.  “There’s some places where, I don’t know if they’re fiddle fans, or Natalie fans or if they just love Celtic music,” she said, “but there’s some places where there’s just awesome crowds,” noting that she recognized many of the same faces returning to her area shows.

On the current tour, a three-piece band backs MacMaster (“more trad,” she explains), including 15-year old cello prodigy Nathaniel Smith, longtime keyboard player Mac Morin and Matt MacIsaac, a pipe and banjo player whose rich musical lineage – his great grandfather was Pipe Major John A. (Black Jack) MacDonald of the Cape Breton Highlanders – rivals MacMaster’s.

Local Rhythms – What Rock and Roll Lifestyle?

Picture 2Whenever my small contribution to the local scene receives a compliment, I’m quick to defer to a more worthy subject.

Dedicated musicians make this column possible.

It’s a constant source of amazement what they’re forced to endure.  Nonchalant diners talk through sets, soused patrons insist on Skynyrd covers and pay to play schemes turn their rock and roll hopes into the stuff of credit card scams.

Still, they persevere.

Pariah Beat plays a hybrid of folk and rock that I call “Klezmericana.”   Their wildly infectious energy has made them one of my favorite area bands.

Last year at this time, they performed a marathon “Pariah Feat” weekend of shows to fund the release of their debut album.  This weekend’s “Pariah Feat II” aims to raise money for a new tour van.

In another era, the California band CAKE asked, “how do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle?” Back then, it meant more that just getting paid enough to keep on working.

Live to play, earn to tour is today’s mantra.

Or, to quote a Pariah Beat song, “a brand new car and a PBR are the American dream/and if I play my cards right that dream could become reality,”

The four-day fundraiser begins Friday at Thetford’s Eclipse Grange with the musical revue, “A Pig’s Tail ~ The Truth Behind the Curious Case of Mysterious Disappearance of Pig & Wolf and Their Miraculous Homeward Odyssey.”

Caring Babies, Jan Meese and others join in the fun – tickets are $10-$18.

The band will busk for tips Saturday in Hanover (Stinson’s Alley, noon-4).  In the evening they’ll move to their de facto home base, WRJ’s Main Street Museum, for a show that’s preceded by the “Hobo Stew and BYO-BBQ” on the Museum Riverside.

The Jitters provide musical entertainment at Sunday’s Pariah Pancake Brunch in Thetford Center, while the band serves flapjacks and scrambled eggs (noon-2 PM, $8).

Later, PB busks again and passes the hat at Hanover’s Dirt Cowboy (9 PM.

Finally, there’s an all-day cookout ($5 music/$5 food) at the Upper Valley Events Center in Norwich.

Guests include T-Town Blues Band (and surprise collaborations). Donated local goods support a Turkish auction and there will be plenty of burgers, dogs, slaws and salads.

All for the sole purpose of getting a great band back on the road so they can play some more – how can you not love that?

Now, on to the rest of the long weekend:

Thursday:  Aaron Seibert, Casa del Sol – This soulful singer-guitarist, hailing from upstate Vermont, has a bit of a Van Morrison vibe going, along with an impressive catalog of original songs.  He also lists Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews as influences, which gives you an idea of where he’s coming from musically. Seibert possess a special kind of energy that really lights up a crowd – Casa del Sol’s tasty food and margaritas should help, too.

Friday: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Lebanon Opera House –The raucous singer/harp player was a frequent guest at Bruce Springsteen’s shows in the 70’s; E Street Band guitarist Little Steven produced a few of his R&B infused albums.  Jon Bon Jovi once said he wished he could be Southside Johnny – if only.  Part of the annual “Concerts for the Cause” series of benefits for NH Child and Family Services.

Saturday: Rock On! Fest, Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion – A couple more local bands – Hexerei and Transcent – have secured spots on the bill for this massive all day show, featuring headliner Korn and 30 or so others,  including Claremont’s Soul Octane Burner.  All the performers have a chance to make money on ticket sales and improve their lineup slot – a big improvement over Locobazooka, where most groups struggled to break even.

Sunday: Pete Merrigan, Digby’s on the Deck – Time was, Merrigan’s first outdoor gig at this restaurant in Sunapee Circle signified the return of “Three Season Pete” to the area.  Since he moved back last year, it simply means summer’s starting, which is no less a reason to party.  May weather can be iffy, so here’s hoping the elements cooperate for an afternoon of good vibes and happy music.

Monday: Day Four, Strange Creek Campout  – This is really the mop-up day for Greenfield’s answer to Gathering of the Vibes, which begins Friday and includes big names like New Riders of the Purple Sage, Assembly of Dust, Strangefolk and Max Creek, along with a multitude of others (Ryan Montbleau, Alchemystics) playing on three outdoor stages and two cabins.

Wednesday: CAKE, Lowell Memorial Auditorium – I love this band’s dry with and deadpan humor on songs like “Never There” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” and especially “Rock and Roll Lifestyle,” mentioned above.  It strikes a perfect balance of Tom Waits and Frank Zappa, intoning,  “excess ain’t rebellion, you’re drinking what they’re selling.” Indeed.