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.

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