‘Canvas’ – Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy

5 stars (out of 5)


And still the pandemic albums keep coming; it took a while to adjust, but the adversity of 2020 and 2021 was a genuine mother of invention. The response of Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy was to take the opportunity to go back to basics and start all over again with a tabula rasa, or a blank canvas, fusing their traditional musical roots with a huge variety of influences from across the globe and across the ages. All the way from Scotland in the nineteenth century to Spain and Latin America in the 2020s; that’s a broad and sometimes weird canvas.

The title track and exposition is a very short piece priming the canvas for the rest of the album. It’s a sketch that introduces atmospheric banjo and fiddle with some ethereal backing vocals and a bit of synth bass, hinting at some of the interesting combinations yet to come. And they are very interesting combinations.

Of the album’s thirteen pieces, two have lyrics (‘Woman of the House’ is sung by Rhiannon Giddens in Gaelic while ‘Wish You Were Near’ is sung by its author, Robyn Cunningham), three have backing vocals and the remaining eight are instrumentals ranging from the plaintive traditional James Scott Skinner tune ‘The Laird o’ Bemersyde’ to some absolutely bonkers (in the best possible way) fusions with other musical traditions. If you’re not admiring the quality of the musicianship, you’ll be smiling at the audacity of some of the fusion arrangements. The other James Scott Skinner to appear on the album, ‘The East Neuk of Fife’ begins its journey as a traditional fiddle piece before Natalie’s variations on the theme take over and the slap bass kicks in. That was definitely one of the smiley moments.

Here are some of my personal highlights. ‘So You Love’, featuring classical cellist Yo Yo Ma which starts with a solo piano, builds through a combination of Gaelic and Eastern European styles, string ensembles and a cello solo before speeding up into a huge string section with counterpoint fiddles and releasing the tension with a slow finish; it’s a symphony in miniature. ‘The Case of the Mysterious Squabbyquash’ is another kitchen sink production that gives a nod to the great Irish folk-rock fusion band, Horslips. The song opens with fairly traditional fiddle stylings and builds with rock bass and drums before a Hammond break leads into an outrageously over-the-top wah-wah guitar solo from the album’s producer Elmer Ferrer that sums up the album; you really don’t know what’s coming next. It could be step dancing, a horn section counterpoint fiddles.

‘Canvas’ is a truly remarkable piece of work. Just when you think Natalie and Donnell have exhausted the creative possibilities and they pull another trick out of the bag. You won’t get tired of listening to ‘Canvas’ any time soon and I think you’ll be grinning every time you listen to it.

‘Canvas’ is released in the UK on Friday April 7th.

Here’s the official video for ‘Colour Theory’ featuring Brian Finnegan:

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!