Fiddle virtuoso Natalie MacMaster walked the line between tradition and a high-energy performance during her return trip Saturday night to The Egg’s Hart Theatre and excelled on both counts.
For two sets and more than two hours, MacMaster and her top notch band — featuring pianist Mac Morin, cellist Nathaniel Smith, guitarist Nate Douglas and drummer Eric Breton — plied a fairly even mix of holiday favorites and traditional fiddle tunes from MacMaster’s native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. But everything here sounded of a piece, anchored by the band’s muscular rhythms and brought to life by MacMaster’s exciting playing.
Throughout the evening, the audience, which filled maybe three-quarters of the venue, clapped and cheered its approval, giving more than a few standing ovations over the course of the performance.
Taking the stage shortly after 7:30 p.m., MacMaster and her four bandmates kicked things off in a traditional vein with two toe-tapping medleys, ratcheting up the energy in the theater. Throughout the first medley, MacMaster looked as if she couldn’t be contained, firing off rapid fiddle lines and bobbing and weaving to the music. By the end of nearly every song or medley the group played (or often, way before the end), MacMaster was full-on step dancing. Of course, she took a full-fledged step dance solo later in the first set, too, with some help from Breton.
After a few more traditional Cape Breton reels, MacMaster and company delved into the Christmas music. A large medley in the middle of the first set covered everything from a caffeinated version of “Silver Bells” to “Winter Wonderland,” which featured some of MacMaster’s most nimble, high-speed playing. Earlier in the set, MacMaster explained the challenge of finding good Christmas songs to cover in a strictly instrumental setup — the key for her is finding songs with strong melodies, and it looks like she succeeded this night.
More holiday fun came late in the first set, when MacMaster brought three of her five children onstage to perform “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and, of course, dance. The kids, cute as could be, also seemed to be on the right track musically — when they weren’t scampering about the stage absent-mindedly or hanging on to mic stands, instrument stands or their mother.
While MacMaster commanded the stage, trotting to and fro and working the audience with her energetic dancing and playing, the rest of the band offered plenty of fine musicianship, too. Morin had numerous chances to shine, including a duet with Smith on the Scottish ballad “Robert Cormack of Aberdeen.”
In the second set, MacMaster played a lengthy duet with Morin on a stripped-down reel that was the most traditional number played all evening. Smith also got to duet with MacMaster during a medley of “Get Me Through December” and “O Holy Night,” with the two string players weaving an intricate tapestry of harmonies.
The group ended with a fierce performance of “Pretty Mary,” which started with Breton soloing on a Peruvian collection box and quickly built into another high-energy reel as MacMaster danced and played passionately through to the end.