Natalie MacMaster’s Sketches bows new life into the great fiddle tradition. And please, forget for a moment that she’s immensely popular (with a Christmas album to boot!), and enjoy an album of Cape Breton music that bleeds with beauty.
‘Three Reels’ flints up the kindling. The first part, ‘Father John Angus Rankin’, simply dances. There’s nothing fancy here, just pulsing Celtic music that’s a conflagration of Natalie’s fiddle, Tim Edey’s rhythmic somewhat jazzy acoustic guitar, and Frank Evans’ banjo. The other two reels, ‘The Golden Keyboard’ and (the Natalie original) ‘Mary Shannon’s Reel’, manage to fulfill both Scotland’s Proclaimers and (the great) George Jones’s urge to “Burn Your Playhouse Down”.
Ditto for the three part ‘The Golden Eagle’, which begins with a hornpipe and then stumbles into a Celtic free-for-all called ‘Never Was Piping So Gay’, until the tune resolves into another original, ‘History With Hannah’.
By the way, some guy in a Limerick pub once told me that The Bible got it wrong because, as he said, “God created the hornpipe just after he did all that let there be light stuff”.
That said, then there are beautiful tunes that flow on the passionate air. ‘Morning Galliano’ waltzes with the addition of Tim Edey’s accordion. Perhaps, it conjures the carefree dance steps just before any war. And ‘Professor Blackie’ sings with the pathos that, quite frankly, can make a teardrop weep. This is time standing still stuff. It’s the innocence of youth glancing into the weathered face of age with an equal sense of melodic tenacity. Oh my! Then the six-part ‘Killiecrankie’ wanders into the quiet of the human heart.
Now, it’s just an idea, but a long time ago at the Lisdoonvarna Festival in Ireland, a fellow camper had buried a Guinness keg with a spout that popped from the ground. I thought it was water, which was, trust me, a rarity during that weekend. I asked the guy for a drink, but my hearing was dulled because the next-door camper van had blasted The Talking Head’s first Psycho Killer album all night long with speakers amped to Spinal Tap’s eleven. So, when I asked for a drink, the guy either said to my muffed ears, “That’s a good Guinness” or “There’s a God within us”. To this very day, I’m really not sure what the guy said. Perhaps, they are one in the same. But that’s beauty of this record: It’s a good slowly drawn pub pint, and yet it sings to the spirit of the soul—Celtic or otherwise!
That also said, the latter part of the album continues the template. ‘Fill ‘Er Up For A Set’ pairs two jigs. Then ‘Judy’s Dance’ begins with the Baroque vibe of ‘Miss Grace’ that morphs into a ‘Aoife’s Reel,’ which then gives way to yet another NM original, ‘Judy’s Dance’, that adds a bluegrass brush and a wonderful jazzy guitar/bass ending. Yeah, this music is all over the place. Of course, that’s part of its universal appeal.
Then tradition reigns supreme. ‘West Bay Road’ slows the pace. The first part, ‘Planxty Hewlett’, is slow and lovely, while the ending (another original) ‘Lauchie MacDougall’ is Celtic to its core. Oh my! (again!) The epic ‘Tribute To John Allan’ sways with intense passion through its seven parts. The violin simply sings sweet history, and then it sings even more sweet history. I am reminded the Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under The Greenwood Tree, which documents the sad transition from the Mellstock church fiddle ensemble to the much preferred organ playing by Miss Fancy Day! And that brought to mind an Eighteenth-Century violin I saw in a Cheltenham museum. You know, that Mellstock church fiddle ensemble and that antiquated museum violin haunt this tune.
The final song, ‘Can’t Make You Love Me’, is a slow adieu with a sad melody and an equally sad memory. This one shrugs with melancholy grace.
So, yes, once again, Natalie MacMaster’s roots are showing. But they are old roots that have never really lost their autumnal color. They sing with the bounty of a good Guinness and a good God within us all. And that’s the beauty of this music: It’s old stuff that walks through fallen leaves, but it never forgets the vibrance of its springtime and very youthful fiddle memory.
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The material from Sketches is still under wraps and I decided against posting the Tim Horton’s commercial (one for our Canadian friends, there) so here’s Natalie live at Celtic Connections with Mac Morin: