Joan Baez

Ring Them Bells

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By the mid-'90s, Joan Baez had been around long enough to assume the mantle of grand matron of the folk scene. Ring Them Bells finds her freshening her sound by tapping into the revivified singer/songwriter genre of the mid-'90s, an especially strong time for women artists. For this live album (recorded at the Bottom Line in New York City) Baez enlisted an impressive roster of women, sharing the stage with the likes of Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Mary Black. And while the collaborations tend to be casual and lack a certain finish, there's added interest in hearing Baez backed up by those who were undoubtedly influenced by her style. That's obviously the raison d'etre for this disc, which otherwise might have been just another throwaway live album. The strength of the album lies in the diverse set list. It spans Baez's career: the usual standards like "Diamonds & Rust" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (sung a cappella), are bolstered by traditional folk songs like "Lily of the West." She peppers her own repertoire with an ample range of covers, including "Suzanne," Janis Ian's "Jesse," and more recent offerings from Dar Williams and Indigo Girls. Baez was still listening to Bob Dylan's work, as evidenced by her delicate treatment of "Ring Them Bells," a hymn-like gem from Oh Mercy. There's a gentle, unifying force in these performances -- as if Baez is tying up 30-plus years of folk and singer/songwriter tradition, sweeping across the land, and liking what she sees.

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