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Nashville Scene Irish Spring

Young fiddlers usher in Celtic music's creative renaissance

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  A few years ago, a minor Celtic music craze erupted in the wake of the successful stage extravaganzas Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. But the popularity experienced by a handful of Celtic performers didn't spike sales as high as enthusiasts had hoped. Still, interest in traditional Irish music continues to run higher than usual, and many of those involved in the music hope that interest will only increase. What would help most, they say, is a compelling artist or two who can further excite the masses.

What the musical idiom needs, then, is someone similar to Alison Krauss, whose crossover pop-country success took a whole fleet of young, deserving bluegrass players to a new level of popularity.

When it comes to Celtic-influenced music, insiders agree that the two performers most likely to garner such notice would be Natalie MacMaster and Eileen Ivers. The two share several attributes: They're highly skillful, accomplished instrumentalists who fit the mold for American stardom--they're youthful, attractive, and charismatic. They're also extravagantly entertaining performers who give their music a commanding flair that draws in listeners visually as well as aurally.

They also share a quirk in that neither was born in Ireland. MacMaster came up in the Celtic cultural outpost of Cape Breton in Eastern Canada, off the coast of Nova Scotia. The area has spawned many highly touted fiddlers, including MacMaster's uncle, Buddy MacMaster, and her cousin, Ashley MacIsaac.

Ivers was born in New York City. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she came of age in an era when she was more likely to be surrounded by boomboxes than by the devil's box (as the fiddle was sometimes called by Appalachians of generations past).

But Ivers, who first became inspired to pick up the fiddle after seeing Hee Haw, has become the most dexterously dazzling Celtic-based fiddler of the '90s. Some may prefer the elegiac beauty of Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, but when it comes to high-speed expertise or to stylistic diversity, Ivers' only modern-day peer is Mark O'Connor, whose primary influences are more American than her own.

This year, MacMaster and Ivers have both released albums that broaden their musical palettes in an attempt to appeal to a larger, pop-driven music market. Although both started out as staunchly traditional players of reels and jigs, their new albums prove that they have become eclectic musical explorers.

Fortunately, neither album strains to catch the pop audience. Rather than make calculated moves that homogenize their uniqueness, MacMaster and Ivers take audacious chances and try to find interesting ways to modernize traditional musical forms. On both albums, the Celtic influence remains evident, although more prominently in MacMaster's work than in Ivers'. But both women experiment with dance rhythms and with arrangements that enfold rock, jazz, Latin, flamenco, electronica, and hip-hop.

MacMaster is already a huge presence in Canada and in the British Isles, where she has performed with the Edinburgh Symphony, among other high-profile gigs. In America, she's yet to garner the widespread attention that some have predicted for her. However, she has opened tours for Carlos Santana and The Chieftains, and she appeared on the latter's Fire in the Kitchen album in 1998.

Anyone who's seen her in performance is not likely to forget her forceful presence onstage. She's an astounding step dancer as well as an accomplished fiddler, and her ability to combine both skills rouses crowds in a way that traditional music players rarely manage to do.

In My Hands features several glorious moments, including a few blatant attempts at modernization. The opening title tune, in which MacMaster recites a sensual poem about a fiddle, is set to an atmospheric, trip-hop arrangement, and it works beautifully. The same goes for "Flamenco Fling," in which she plays off flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook with rousing results. MacMaster also shines on several traditional tunes, including the lively "Mom's Jig," which shows off the percussive sound of her step-dancing.

Her attempt at a trance-beat dance tune, "Space Ceilidh," sounds forced, however, with the modern and traditional sounds making for an ill-fitting combination. The same goes for a few instrumentals that, though well crafted, own the blandness of pop-jazz groups like Spyro Gyra.

If MacMaster doesn't always succeed on her latest effort, Ivers creates a furiously commanding sound throughout Crossing the Bridge. Best known for her stunning work during the Riverdance show, Ivers is a veteran envelope-pusher who has been making stunning music throughout the '90s.

On her first album since leaving Green Linnet Records for the Sony Classical imprint, she enlists a surprising roster of players for a collection of songs that skips across continents and traditions with stirring naturalness. Ivers likes to mix and match styles, merging American jazz players like Al Dimeola, Randy Brecker, and Lew Soloff with Latin percussionist Alex Acuna, Irish masters Seamus Egan and Jerry O'Sullivan, and African players Vieux Diop and Bakithi Kumalo.

But the star is undoubtedly Ivers. The breadth of her talent is stunning: She can swing with the jauntiness of Stephane Grappelli, play with the dexterity of Jean Luc Ponty, and employ the speed and genre-crossing agility of Mark O'Connor. But what makes Crossing the Bridge such a wondrous pleasure is how Ivers pulls so many different ideas into something that holds together so well. Whether she's performing a moving solo ballad or distorting her fiddle through a wah-wah pedal, her touch is as solid as it is adventurous. For anyone who likes instrumental music that molds challenging ideas into accessible tunes, Crossing the Bridge is a must.

Neither MacMaster's nor Ivers' album has yet to pick up the kind of commercial cache that will give Celtic music the thrust it needs to enter the American musical mainstream. But what matters more is that these two women are ushering the idiom into a renaissance of creativity and growth. For those listeners discovering these two young artists for the first time, the next decade should be plenty rewarding.


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