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NATALIE MacMASTER "Blueprint" Rounder Records RR7056

You instantly know you're listening to a MacMaster. The power, the lift and the sheer exuberance are there in spades, all the hallmarks of this great Cape Breton fiddling family. Three of Natalie's own tunes prelude a heart-stopping switch into the piping masterpiece 'Mrs MacPherso'n which ends the first stomping set of reels and strathspeys. Track 2 takes Phil Cunningham's 'Appropriate Dipstick' to new heights, with some fabulous finger work from Matt MacIsaac who is a revelation throughout on electric and acoustic pipes.

It's no accident that this album appears on the Rounder label. Natalie is joined on most tracks by names from the bluegrass hall of fame: Bela Fleck and Alison Brown on banjos, Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddler Darol Anger, and the best dobro player ever in Jerry Douglas. There are a couple of vocal tracks too, written by Natalie and sung by John Cowan and Kate Quinn, but it's the instrumentals that really score for me. Plenty of great reels and jigs, of course, but that's not all. Natalie has taken Phil Cunningham's slow air 'Eternal Friendship', which left me cold before, and turned it into a bluegrass hymn of outstanding beauty. She follows this with a brilliant version of the Canadian classic Carignan Clog that any fiddler would be proud of. Then there's 'Josefin's Waltz' from Sweden, one of my favourites ever since Dervish picked it up, alternating earthy bass with angelic mandolin from Matt Flinner.

The soul of this recording is still in those Scots and Irish reels, though. They shine out like beacons in the sea of bluegrass picking and Nashville production. 'Tarbolton Lodge', 'The Silver Spear', 'Lad O'Beirne's', 'Lord Gordon's Reel', Ed Reavy's 'The Street Player', and Jerry Holland's 'Reel for Carl' all make an appearance, often at the end of a set when Natalie maybe wants firmer ground under her fiddle. Nashville's fine for a visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

"Blueprint" is a truly MacMasterful CD, full of life and spirit. Don't miss it.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 54 of The Living Tradition magazine.