Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace


Artist: Custer LaRue, The Baltimore Consort

Composers: R. Boyd, L. P. Breedlove, Henry F. Chandler, Elisha J. King, Traditional

Format: 1 CD


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We haven't heard from soprano Custer LaRue for awhile, but it's certainly a treat to hear her again, doing what she does best. That is, singing all by herself the original songs of American folk, songs that require the simple yet heartfelt interpretations of a clear, expressive, characterful voice and that benefit from the knowing technique of a learned, experienced singer. Of course, she's not quite alone here: she's got the best set of instrumental partners one could hope for in this repertoire, all of them her long-time Baltimore Consort colleagues. Their chosen program this time focuses on a rich repertoire that's often neglected because of modern society's strange fear of "offending" anyone with Christian ideas, music, or symbols (while at the same time happily embracing and defending almost any other, non-Christian religious views and practices). These are the songs that cemented early American culture, around which whole groups of formerly persecuted congregations gathered, and through which a then-common belief was shared. The tunes still live because they're memorable; the words still speak meaningfully because, even in their occasional quaintness or high-mindedness they address the real concerns of a basic human quest.

The songs come from many sources, and as we read Mary Anne Ballard's detailed and always informative notes, we learn that no one knows for sure when these texts and tunes first came together. In the earliest days they were passed around by ear and not by means of printed hymnals familiar to us today. We also learn that many of the original "folk hymns" and "religious ballads" were sung unharmonized, and it's nice to hear them here in this form, but with very colorful and sensitive support from lute, cittern, bandora, rebec, and viols.

You may know some of these songs—and there's an incredible variety among the 18 selections—but chances are, with two or three exceptions, you won't. You most certainly will be impressed with the level of musicianship and with the imagination and range of the accompaniments. In fact, after hearing the two songs "Hold On" (which contains the roots of that wonderful Peter Paul & Mary song "Mornin' Train") and the following "Good Old Way", you easily find yourself imagining these musicians cutting loose into some real down 'n' dirty blues! Along those lines, you may wish for a little more vocal grit—to match the cittern/bandora accompaniment—in LaRue's too rich and too centered "Poor Wayfaring Stranger". But she turns that same pureness and lovely expressive quality to full advantage in her moving, unaccompanied rendition of Amazing Grace, the disc's closing track, leaving us not only with this profound expression of its author's spiritual enlightenment, but with the impression wrought by one who herself seems to truly believe what she's singing.

LaRue's voice shows an occasional worn edge—but whether this is an intentional expression of the music and text or the result of natural vocal changes is impossible to tell. The excellent sound comes not from this group's previously favored venue, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, NY, but rather from Dorian's equally superb and increasingly-utilized location at the Domaine Forget in Saint-Irénée, Quebec.

—David Vernier,

Total time: 61:36
Release date: March 1, 2001
UPC: 053479029621