Mon, Oct 1, 2012.
Natalie MacMaster is back home in Cape Breton this week, using her parent's home in Troy as her base of operations while she tours in the Maritimes. She does this every few months, keeping her fans happy with enough shows in the area, keeping the grandparents happy with the visits, and keeping herself grounded to the place she'll always love. "I'm so lucky to be able to do this," she admits on her mother's phone. "I know Mom and Dad love it. Yes, it's hard work for her, but nothing good comes easy. She loves to have us all here, and I'm sure she spends a month getting ready, baking and putting things in the freezer."
This trip is different though, for a number of reasons. First, there's a new bay for Grandma to hold. Alec Francis Leahy, was born on August 11th, the fifth child and second boy for MacMaster and her husband Donnell. That's five kids she's brought with her, and less than two months after giving birth, she's about to take the stage, playing and dancing at full-throttle Is she, umm, nuts? "It's been the same for all of them," she says matter-of-factly. "It's just the way the tours have been booked, before I even got pregnant. There's nothing easy about any of it, but once you're on stage, it's great. Once you're on stage, it's your own world, nothing can touch you. And its great to prove you can still do it, too."
Another reason this trip is different is the shows she'll be playing. She has half a new band, two of the four players, and these will be their first gigs, a baptism by fire right in the heart of Celtic music. Is she, umm, nuts? "We've only played together three times," she admits, "and that's at rehearsals in my house. It's really different, more of a trad set up, not a full drum kit, more of a percussionist. You're getting a whole new show, new groups, new medleys, new arrangements." Why, of all things, to debut the group and new material in front of audiences that truly know the music? "This is the last place i want to be playing, I want months of touring before i come here. I want my best show to be my home show. It was just the way the schedule worked out, the baby was thrown into the mix, this was booked a year ago. Yes, I'm nervous, but as Donnell says, 'it's awfully exciting isn't it?' Deep down we're all road dogs, and we have the experience to rise to the occasion. But it's still fiddle tunes, it's still within the tradition. It's been very exciting for me for the last couple of weeks."
A final reason this trip has become so very different is the news that shocked Cape Breton over the weekend. As MacMaster arrived back in town, she found out about the death of her friend, and a hero to her, Raylene Rankin, to cancer. The eldest of the Rankins, Raylene was twelve years older than MacMaster, but had been a fixture in her life since the start of her career as a young teen. It's obvious she's still shocked by the news. "I've known Raylene as long as I can remember. She was someone who I was in absolute awe of, all the Rankin Family, and particularly Raylene. She seemed to be the ring-leader. It was exciting times, the music was so great. Getting to tour with them when I was younger, that meant more to me than touring with, say, Celine Dion, anybody." It turns out MacMaster was briefly a surrogate Rankin on the road, living her dream, and learning that Raylene was a special person. "We did a number of shows together. I filled in for Howie (MacDonald, the group's fiddler). She was wonderful, a really bright personality and full of energy. I roomed with her a bit, and she was a caring and fun person."
It might be a different, and difficult time to be coming home in some ways, but for Celtic music fans, and for herself too, it's probably a very good thing MacMaster is around this week. Her music will no doubt be needed. Natalie MacMaster and her band play the Imperial in Saint John Thursday the 4th, Friday night at the annual Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, Saturday night at Fredericton's Playhouse, then Monday at the Rebecca Cohn in Halifax.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).