Custer LaRue &
the Baltimore Consort,
Amazing Grace
(Dorian, 2001)

"Some of these days about four o'clock,
This old world's going to reel and rock."

"Hold On," author unknown

From the start, this album intrigued me -- not because of the title (a personal favorite) nor because of the featured soloist (of whom I had never heard). The recording is billed as "Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America," but because of the unique arrangements and instruments, it was not the type of spirituals I anticipated.

The soloist, Custer LaRue, is accompanied by the Baltimore Consort. My dictionary defines a consort (in music) as "a 17th century English chamber music ensemble, sometimes including vocalists." The idea of putting American spiritual folk songs together with a "consort" was fascinating. The resulting combination is an unparalleled success.

Amazing Grace is a celebration of "the music of Old-Time Religion -- the expression of country folk and poor yeomen who fled to America ... so that they could practice political and religious freedom." The combination of LaRue's crystal clear soprano voice and the instruments of the Consort provide an exuberant old-timey rural Americana feel to this CD, which was recorded in Quebec in November 2000.

The Baltimore Consort includes Ronn McFarlane on lute and bandora, Mark Cudek on cittern, lute and bass viol, and Mary Anne Ballard on treble viol, bass viol and rebec. With instruments like these and a voice like LaRue's, the result had to be something special.

Even before hitting the "play" button, I knew I was in for a treat. The sounds were awe inspiring in the true religious sense of the word. Spirituals of this era deal with simple themes: the Bible, sin, redemption, heaven and hell. Follow the precepts of the Bible and glory awaits; sin and ye shall face the gaping pit of eternal damnation.

Although I've always preferred the older hymns to the ones written in the past 50 years, I was familiar with only two of the hymns on this recording. "Amazing Grace," of course, and ""Poor Wayfaring Stranger." Fortunately, Dorian Recordings saw fit to include the words to all the vocal selections in the liner notes. Of the 18 tracks, only two are instrumentals.

One of the more unusual tunes, "Hold On," is described as a "rollicking anticipation of Judgment Day." LaRue's voice, backed by a rebec, bandora and bass viol, lends a very haunting aura to this hymn which was inspired by the Book of Revelations.

"Death 'tis a Melancholy Day" depicts a female soul struggling to avoid the fiery pit. "Female Convict" features LaRue with a lute accompaniment in a lullaby-lament about a woman who, after receiving pardon in the sight of God, addresses her infant. On several tracks, LaRue sings without accompaniment allowing the full range and beauty of her voice to shine.

The notes claim that "fiddle tunes were too good to remain in the employ of the Devil." The two instrumentals are "Old Fashioned Bible," the setting of which is a jig tune known as "St. Patrick's Day in the Morning," and "Heavenly Contention." The words to this latter hymn (not included) supposedly describe "a battle in the heavenly choir over who gets to voice the highest praise."

There are three distinct levels of enjoyment in this recording. LaRue's voice is one that must be heard to be believed. The words of the hymns provide a real sense of the religious fervor that swept America two centuries ago. Finally, the arrangements and sounds of those antique instruments are somewhat otherwordly yet hauntingly beautiful.

It is almost a miracle how such simple tunes can transport one's mind to realms of glory. Amazing Grace, with Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort, is both amazing and full of grace; music seldom heard these days this side of the great divide.

[ by Bill Knapp ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001

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