Kicking up a Celtic storm

Natalie MacMaster is a pyrotechnic performer with more lift than a NASA launch pad. This step-dancing dervish in skin-tight neon pants kicks higher than her waist — simultaneously launching into a full-blown fiddling frenzy. You can practically see smoke beneath the blur of her fingertips, curls of 24-karat golden hair fly every which way, and mob hysteria ensues among her fans.

Traditional Celtic music? Yeah, but MacMaster plays it with a vengeance.

The 25-year-old native of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, grew up “in a community too small to be called a town,” within a family of gifted musicians. Her Scottish ancestors brought their music with them from the old country, and because Cape Breton was so isolated from the rest of the world, the original traditions were preserved there, intact, over a century, even as it changed in Mother Scotland and elsewhere.

“I think the main focus that sets [Cape Breton music] apart from other styles is that the concentration is not so much on technicality and precision as it is on feeling and lift and power,” MacMaster insists. “Number one is feel and timing. The Cape Breton style has rawness; the ‘dirt’ is still there. The precision and the perfectness of the way it’s played is secondary. … That’s the music I grew up with.” Her band members — Dave MacIsaac on acoustic and electric guitars; Joel Chiasson on piano and keyboards; Bruce Jacobs on bass; and Tom Roach on drums and percussion — were hand-picked by MacMaster from among Nova Scotia’s finest musicians. They, too, carry the Celtic sound in their blood.

“Everybody’s got their own distinct style, and I’m sure I do too,” MacMaster points out. “I wouldn’t really be able to tell how — you can just hear it.” Indeed you can, and you can see it, too. With her untamed stage presence, MacMaster is one of the most astonishing live performers of her generation. Her frenetic step-dancing kicks in the door to an audience’s soul like a performing-arts SWAT team. Once inside, her fiddle bow scorches across the heartstrings in an emotional rampage encompassing the whole spectrum of Celtic zeal. MacMaster leaves listeners experientially electrocuted in the juice of their own sweet rapture.

But lurking within this hurricane of a performer is someone longing for the time to simply sit and watch her clothes spin round and round in the dryer.

“If I have a day off, it’s usually spent doing interviews, or I’m big-time in need of doing a load of laundry,” reveals the soft-spoken dynamo. Between March 1 and April 12, for example, MacMaster performed 42 shows (that’s busy — no matter how you do the math), leaving precious little time for anything else. “I won’t look at [my schedule],” she relates. “I just get a general overview. It scares the hell out of me, to be honest.”

Besides incessant touring, MacMaster also devotes much time to recording. Unlike many performing artists, she adores the studio’s high-tech environment, where she “lets someone else do the magic.” “I absolutely love recording,” she exclaims. “I just love getting into the studio: It’s one of my favorite elements of this business.

MacMaster has released five albums, including Fit As A Fiddle (Warner/Canada), which garnered an Instrumentalist of the Year Award in 1994 at the Canadian East Coast Music Awards. The highly acclaimed No Boundaries (Rounder), released in Canada in 1996, is now available in America.

One of her CDs, entitled A Compilation, includes tracks recorded at the ripe age of 16. In fact, her mother (who operates the Natalie MacMaster Fan Club) has a tape of Natalie’s big brother “interviewing” the 9-year-old Natalie just a few days after she first picked up a pint-sized fiddle. “Tomorrow, I’m off to play with the symphony in Calgary,” she related (with uncanny foresight) during the make-believe press conference. “I always knew, when I was young, that I’d be playing,” she reflects now. “I just didn’t know to what extent.”

Her first paid gig was at age 10, when she was hired to play for a cousin’s square dance. “It just increased from there,” she explains. “I’ve never had any other job in life; this is all I’ve ever done.”

When opening for world-class bands, she incinerates audiences, leaving nothing but smoke and embers for top-billed performers like The Chieftains and Carlos Santana. U2 megastar Bono showed up at one of MacMaster’s recent recording sessions to check out the action, though she candidly admits that “I don’t even have one of [U2’s] albums.”

She’s headlined in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Brussels and Tokyo, as well as the legendary Bottom Line in New York City’s Greenwich Village. And she’ll star on Sesame Street in June. “I’m totally psyched; I can’t wait to meet Big Bird,” she confides.

And, though not ranked as a main-stage performer at last year’s Merle Watson Festival, she nevertheless became the event’s undisputed darling. From the fringes of the festival, her name and fame spread through the crowd like whispered wildfire, as people heard her for the first time and then turned others on to the fresh phenomenon. Dozens of people were seen scampering away from the main stage area in search of her act. A middle-aged man wiping tears from his eyes during her encore declared, “I haven’t been this moved by a performance in 20 years!” An hour later, 100 adults crowded into a small tent where she was trying to lead a children’s-music workshop. Buying up all her CDs, they stood in line for 30 minutes to have them autographed, neglecting the featured stars on the main stage.

“Merle Fest was one of my most memorable festivals, for sure,” MacMaster recalls, as she prepares for a return engagement this month. But her first stop is Asheville, where at least one exuberant fan is offering to wash, dry and fold her laundry, while she attends to the sound check. Let’s just call it my contribution to the arts.

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