June  2002

Custer LaRue, The Baltimore Consort - Amazing Grace: Spiritual Folk Songs of Early Americas
Dorian 90296
Released: 2001

by Ken Micallef

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Culling this disc's selections from pre-Civil War spirituals popular in both black and white congregations, vocalist Custer LaRue and The Baltimore Consort, bring a fresh, unfettered approach to these mostly little-known works. For many listeners, this music will sound totally unique -- radical in effect; unparalleled in its purity.

The program combines semi-standards such as "Amazing Grace," "Wondrous Love," and "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," with obscure songs such as "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal," "Hold On," and "The Good Old Way." The Baltimore Consort's instrumentation -- treble viola, flute, lute, cittern, bandora and bass viola -- well suits LaRue's crystalline voice. The combination of voice and instruments sounds organic and rich. Most of Amazing Grace's tracks are sweet odes to faith, family and purity, and the disc's mood reflects these themes. Peaceful and serene, it is easy to imagine a church full of parishioners humming along. Several tracks kick a little harder and summon slightly darker emotions, as with the bluesy "Hold On" and the practically bawdy "Good Old Way," where a plaintive beat and funky violin solo evoke a woozy Saturday night in a well-oiled Irish bar. The song is about salvation though, so don't get the wrong idea.

"Come Friends and Relations" is also bracing -- its bouncy rhythm and loping melody recall a jaunty acoustic section from Jethro Tull's Aqualung (or perhaps that's simply this reviewer's classic-rock orientation.) Lovely renditions of "Amazing Grace" and "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" close out the set.

The sound is clear as a bell -- with instruments recorded with great air and separation -- if a little dry-sounding. Crack the Good Book, let in the light, and proceed to kick out the early-music jams.