Team GDW were unfortunately out of town and committed to another event when sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald performed in our part of Pennsylvania last autumn. After kicking ourselves for this missed opportunity, once the sisters announced their most recent tour of the Eastern seaboard, we quickly found one of the dates that was open on our music calendar. With ‘reservations’ confirmed by the host/venue, we had been eagerly awaiting this particular show.
Making the short 3.5 hour trek just north of the PA state line to Corning, NY (on an absolutely perfect sunny Saturday afternoon), we found time to browse the downtown area before heading just a few blocks away to the venue. Sitting opposite the Methodist Church that would host the show, we were soon joined by Cassie and Maggie, who arrived in plenty of time to wind down from their road travel, and set up for their tour finale later that night.
Having spent time listening to their latest album “The Willow Collection” during my weekly commute, I was certainly looking forward to hearing some of these tracks live, and was not disappointed. Over the course of two sets, the sisters would perform 16 tracks, which included 6 from the new album. With a mixture of instrumental pieces and some traditional Gaelic tunes, Cassie and Maggie were able to demonstrate their impeccable skills with violin, guitar, and piano in front of an intimate, yet very appreciative crowd.
Team GDW certainly like the direction that the duo are taking with their musical choices, especially with their decision to be much more active vocally. Both girls possess wonderful voices that absolutely deserve to be heard, with Maggie being entrusted with the majority of the lead vocal duties. Maggie alternated between guitar and keyboards with ease during the show, and we were particularly impressed with her ragtime approach on the keyboards – it looks so haphazard, yet she hits all the right keys at exactly the right times. Cassie also dazzled with her mastery of the classic violin. With an uncanny ability to conform to the traditional Gaelic sound, she pushes the boundaries with her modern interpretation and signature style. Some traditional Highland dancing was thrown into the mix too by Cassie during a couple of tracks. Both sisters certainly have the tendency to not be satisfied with simply mirroring a traditional sound, opting instead to incorporate other (modern) influences to make their sound both unique and their own. This is certainly noticeable on several tracks from “The Willow Collection,” where other instrumentation and effects are available, yet the ‘stripped’ live show did not suffer in any way with just the few immediate instruments to hand.
In addition to being accomplished musicians, both sisters also displayed maturity well beyond their young ages, with complete confidence in conversing with the crowd during their sets. Tales of life in Nova Scotia, of life on the road, of the wrong choice of lunch at Applebees, and the reasoning behind some of the songs they’ve both written and/or covered added that extra dimension to the show. Upon revisiting the track “Let no man steal your thyme,” I have a much better appreciation armed now with the knowledge that ‘thyme’ was a Gaelic reference to ‘innocence.’ Likewise, the same rule applies for my appreciation of the fate of poor Rose Connelly in “Down in the Willow Garden,” whose life was robbed by an undeserving cad and bounder who opted to abuse his social status rather than do the honorable thing. Cassie would later relish the opportunity to avenge poor Rose, and introduce us to “Hangman” whereby the same cad and bounder is proven not above the law, and pays the ultimate price for his misdeeds.
Throughout the evening, we would also learn of the sisters’ grandfather who played violin, and who travelled frequently from Nova Scotia to Montreal, where he would return with his own recordings on 78s – records that the family still own to this day. A cover of one of their grandfather’s tracks was included in the set, a violin piece that is a MacDonald family traditional wedding tune would be played too, which Cassie jokingly dismissed as ‘unlikely to be played anytime soon’ for her or Maggie. Whether a song was traditional, modern, light or serious, both sisters performed flawlessly. It was a delight to experience the tales and sounds of old Nova Scotia, and to see how these girls have not only embraced their musical heritage, but have become instrumental in refining such a sound and opening up such traditional music to a much wider audience.
As always, we wish to express our heartfelt gratitude to both Cassie and Maggie for their time spent with us during the intermission and after the show. These two ladies have such wonderful personalities that it was so difficult to bid them farewell, knowing that they would soon commence their long drive home after the show. Fortunately for us, and hopefully for everybody reading this article, the sisters will be making frequent returns to the US throughout the year. Having checked our calendars, we will unfortunately miss them next month here in Pennsylvania, but our paths will cross once more at the Celtic Classic Festival in Bethlehem, PA. We strongly recommend – no, we strongly urge – that you take the opportunity to come see the MacDonald sisters for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
Cassie and Maggie Set List:
- F# minor opening melody
- Hurricane Jane
- Buain A’Choirce
- March/Strathsby/Reel medley
- Down in the Willow garden
- Let no man steal your thyme
- Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound
- Starlight waltz
- The Willow Lullaby
- Acapella Gaelic milling song
- The Salley Gardens Set
- Gasoline Alley medley
- Maple Sugar/Bowing the Strings