Friday, October 12, 2012

About Town: Natalie MacMaster touches down in Montana

It seems like it shouldn't be time for concert season yet, but it is. I missed the season opener for the Billings Symphony, but since it involved mixing orchestral music with daring young women on the flying trapeze, it was probably just as well. Sigh.

Glancing over the offerings for the year, it was immediately clear, however, that whether I was ready for it or not, this week held one of the performances I least wanted to miss -- a visit from Natalie MacMaster, the famed Cape Breton fiddler. So, I scored front-row tickets and made reservations at Bin 119 so the beloved and I could have a nice meal and a couple of glasses of wine before going the block and a half to the Alberta Bair. (It also makes parking easier for ABT events if one patronizes that particular establishment.)

With a nice Shiraz and a light pasta pleasantly warming my innards, we strolled to the theater for the show. Some guy from New York was lost -- he and his hot dog stand were on the street corner. There were quite a few people out walking the streets in the dusky evening light, and I was reminded that we here in Billings are the home of what styles itself as Montana's only Urban University. There is a certain point to the claim -- all I have to say is that this country boy couldn't be happier to live in a state where Billings is the most urban place around.

Back to Natalie MacMaster, though. What can I say other than that she thoroughly won me over? I'm a big fan of acoustic music of all sorts, and in particular of traditional/Celtic music (it's a north country thing -- even we Norwegians have our version), ever since being introduced to it by my Scottish flat-mate when I was studying in Germany for a year back in college. He played the Northumbrian pipes and tin whistle, and we both played guitar. I didn't know a jig from a reel but was eager to learn. Alan and I had many a happy evening together with him playing on his pipes or whistle and me accompanying on guitar. Eventually a neighbor would tell us to pipe down (so to speak), and the nights thus usually ended by sipping a single-malt over a game of chess -- Alan taught me that life was too short for cheap whiskey, even for students like us.

I even learned to play a few tunes on the whistle, and such is the nature of these things that I can to this day pull out my D-whistle and after a little warm-up, throw down acceptable performances of a couple of traditional Scottish tunes from memory.

Anyway, Cape Breton Island is a part of Nova Scotia where Scottish Highlanders came in droves some centuries ago, in no small part because they were Roman Catholics seeking a place where they could practice their religion in peace. The world of Sir Walter Scott's wonderful Waverly novels in exile, so to speak. Speaking of novels, the beloved is a big fan of Alistair MacLeod, Cape Breton's most famous writer, and those books, filled with the depth and distinctives (and music and dancing) of Cape Breton life, are sitting on the shelf, marinating, waiting for me to read them, too.

Wherever Celtic folks went, they brought their wonderful music, and in places like Appalachia and Cape Breton, one can encounter various forms of the Scottish tradition and its descendents. By the time I became acquainted with Celtic music, the guitar had become the standard rhythmic accompaniment to the tunes. But prior to the 20th century, fiddles, pipes and whistles were largely unaccompanied, and the first instrument that was used, early in the 20th century, to provide backup was actually the piano. While the use of the piano in Celtic music elsewhere has pretty much completely died out, Cape Breton music has preserved the piano as the indispensable accompanying instrument, giving its music a characteristic sound.

It took a little getting used to on Wednesday night, even though I knew this history -- the tonalities introduced by the use of a piano just weren't familiar to me. But again, it didn't take long before I was won over. MacMaster's band was an eclectic one -- a drummer/percussionist (one who toured with Shania Twain in her heyday, no less), a fine guitarist, her excellent long-time pianist, Mac Morin, and a phenomenal kid (Nathaniel Smith) playing the cello. By the way, I just knew I recognized him from his performing with Sarah Jarosz, but she wasn't listed in the program as one of the people he had worked with in the past. Sure enough, when I got home and looked him up, it was the same guy. He is breaking new ground with the cello -- it works wonderfully, since it can creditably function either as a rhythmic acoustic bass instrument or as a upper-register melodic instrument for soloing or harmonic interplay.

I had heard about Macmaster's high-energy performances, but I have to say that I wasn't prepared for her fine dancing -- let alone for a woman who had recently given birth to her 5th child to be dancing up a storm while also rolling off breakneck reels and jigs on her fiddle at the same time. (There's got to be a joke about walking and chewing gum at the same time in there somewhere...) Her six year old daughter even made a cameo, playing fiddle like a little pro and dancing admirably.

MacMaster, like most modern practitioners of traditional music, has spent much of her career exploring the boundaries and borderlands of her genre, and I like that. Someone recently wrote that Alison Krauss and Union Station function as a sort of "gateway drug" for bluegrass music proper, and MacMaster has likewise introduced countless people to Cape Breton music.

For most of the concert, she stayed close to her roots, while regularly putting in just enough elements to make it more accessible to audience members whose ears aren't (yet) accustomed to traditional music.

I remember when I was a youngster playing music, one of my respected teachers told me, "assume that there is at least one real musician in your audience -- play for him." And indeed, the beloved and I found ourselves sitting next to the only other person in the building who was from Cape Breton -- a fiddler herself, no less, who had met MacMaster when she was growing up and playing back home. She had nothing but good to say about MacMaster and the performance. Good enough for me, then, too.

MacMaster's only other performance in Montana was in Helena last night, but she has been here before, and will likely come again. Don't miss it next time.

The next similar thing on my schedule is the Big Sky Big Grass bluegrass festival in February -- the great Sam Bush will be performing, along with many others.


Ed Kemmick said...

For an entirely different Nova Scotian experience, I can't recommend "Trailer Park Boys" (available streaming on Netflix) highly enough. It's a long-running series that, in the early days at least, looks to have been made for about $600 an episode. It might be one of the best low-life comedies ever made, and it is hilarious precisely because nobody involved is looking down his nose at a cast of the biggest losers ever assembled.

Brad Anderson said...

Will definitely have to check that one out. I've never been to Nova Scotia or any of the Maritimes, but I've always wanted to. Sounds like "Trailer Park Boys" would give me a view I'd be unlikely to get as a tourist, anyway.

Tom Balek said...

Aye, an' she's a wee pretty lass too!