Natalie MacMaster | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Natalie MacMaster 

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NATALIE MacMASTER

The fiddle music of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island gets its character from the Scottish immigrants who settled the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries--in fact, many traditions that have all but disappeared in Scotland are still vital there. The Cape Breton style evolved at community functions like parties and weddings, and the island's fiddlers still prefer a driving, danceable, strongly rhythmic approach--stuttering grace notes, punchy double-stops, and piercing, unorthodox tunings--over the showstopping high-velocity displays currently popular among Celtic folk revivalists. Performances are traditionally given solo or in a small group, with the fiddler's own feet providing percussion. Natalie MacMaster, niece of legendary Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, took up her instrument at age nine, and by her teens she was a leading practitioner of the style. Her discography (on Rounder in the States) includes traditional material like 1997's Fit as a Fiddle and My Roots Are Showing--recorded in '98 but unreleased here until last year--but she's also pushed the envelope with albums like In My Hands, recorded in '99 and still her most recent work. It intersperses pristine folk recitals with dense, contemporary-sounding pieces that juxtapose her ageless fiddle with rock percussion, electric guitar, or undulating layers of synthesizer. "Blue Bonnets Over the Border" features throbbing electric bass and swirling strings--and a pounding drum program that, ironically enough, suggests a bodhran. On the goosebump-inducing title tune, based on the traditional Irish reel "The Drunken Landlady," she coos breathily over a double-tracked recording of her own narration, while her fiddle weaves a bright filigree above a panoramic programmed soundscape. MacMaster's current tour is technically in support of In My Hands, but she tends to cover a lot of ground in her performances; though the show will doubtless emphasize her recent crossover-friendly material, there should also be a fair amount of traditional music, and even a bit of step dancing. Saturday, August 25, 7 PM, Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew MacNaughton.

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