By Colleen Mertes
As the crowd trickled into the Main Stage at the Staller Center for the Arts, energetic folk music played over the speakers. Almost a full house braved the ice and rain to see Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy perform in the beginning of their 60-show tour “Visions from Cape Breton and Beyond.”
The lights dimmed as a piano and wooden flute began to sing an ethereal duet. The curtains rose slowly, revealing a small set of stages and people. Shane Hendrickson, on electric bass, Brian Talbot, on a raised platform with drums, Mac Morin on piano and Matt MacIsaac, who played guitar, whistles, and bagpipes throughout the night. MacIsaac and Morin continued their Celtic melody, but then it took a turn. The lights changed and the music came alive with a faster, modern folk tune. Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy came out on stage and dove right into the music. They played with such electricity it made you want to get up and dance.
After this lively introduction, the duo introduced themselves. MacMaster was born and raised in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, she received her first fiddle at age nine and has been playing for over 30 years. Leahy comes from Ontario and was born into a family of fiddlers and step dancers. They have been married since 2002 and have six children, ranging from 9 years to 10 months.
The evening was centered around tradition and family. Cape Breton has a brilliant and deep musical tradition trailing to Canada from Scotland. MacMaster and Leahy truly displayed that their craft isn’t just a way to make a living, it’s they way they live their life. Music and dance is central to the their roots, which is important to them.
Not only did the show deliver energetic Celtic music, but it incorporated multimedia. After the duo played “The Chase” the audience was treated to a video of MacMaster playing at Glencoe Mills Hall for a night of square dancing. She played along with the video, creating a very dynamic experience for the audience.
The next video featured the duo’s mothers explaining the deep tradition of step dancing, fiddle playing and singing in Cape Breton. As a clip of young MacMaster playing fiddle was projected on the screen, her eldest daughter, Mary Francis, 9, walked out and began to play in tandem with the video.
The heartfelt moment expanded when her second daughter, Claire, came out and joined Mary Francis. Soon, their son, Michael, 7, came out to accompany his sisters. As MacMaster and Leahy played with three of their talented children, another, smaller daughter pranced out on stage. Little Julia, followed her siblings in playing a small solo and then a collaboration with the family. After they displayed their fiddle finesse, the four children began to step dance. First one at a time, letting each have their time in the spotlight, then all together.
The second act opened with bagpipes. MacMaster played the piano while Mac Morin began to step dance. MacMaster and Leahy joined Morin and stepped in time. Following this was the “Ellen Polka,” a tune from Finland, with MacMaster, Leahy and their son, Michael.
The last video of the night was of Cape Breton and its beautiful serenity, accompanied by MacMaster’s rendition of a 300-year-old Scottish tune. After hearing some improvisation from both fiddlers, the night came to an end with an energetic, rocking Celtic piece. The crowd gave a standing ovation and gave such a roar that they returned for an interactive encore. The crowd stood, clapped their hands and stomped their feet along with their brilliant entertainers.
MacMaster and Leahy gave so much insight into their life in Cape Breton. It was truly inspiring and brought smiles to the entire crowd.