- 10 May 21
Celebrated Irish blues pioneers, The Mary Stokes Band, discuss their rip-roaring new album 'Comin’ Home', being invited to play the iconic Cavern Club by John Lennon’s sister, and hanging with blues and boogie woogie legends like John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Fats Domino. Photography: Miguel Ruiz
Fresh from a photo-shoot at Pearse Street’s Ireland Institute for Cultural and Historical Studies, Mary Stokes and her partner Brian Palm are excited to discuss their band’s latest adventures in jazz and blues.
Hot Press last sat down with Mary and Brian in August 2019, when they were in the midsts of a major festival run and preparing to play the Cavern Club, the Liverpool venue made world famous by The Beatles. Notably, John Lennon’s sister, Julia Baird, extended a personal invitation after catching one of the group’s rousing Cork Jazz Festival gigs.
Since then, Mary and Brian have roped in renowned guitarist Sarah Michelle, and released the excellent Comin’ Home LP. Featuring vocals from State Lights’ Shobsy O’Brien, production from the acclaimed ex-Radiator Pete Holidai, and a beguiling mix of covers and originals, it finds the band in peak form.
A fierce passion drives the Mary Stokes Band’s commitment to live performance, though of course activities halted early last year.
Having played legends alongside legends such as BB King, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Taj Mahal – to name just a few – how are the band coping without the buzz of giggling?
“Everything changed,” says Mary, “and what can you do as live artists when gigs have stopped? We were looking at whether we could put on a socially distanced show, but I rely on an audience to perform. It was something that we had to totally rethink.”
Instead of laying low, however, Brian drew up the blueprint for Comin’ Home.
“Finding a way to keep pursuing your art is crucial,” says Brian. “Gigging and studio recording are out, but you can’t just quit. Once Pete Holidai heard the album, he said he’d do the mixing work for two bottles of Jack Daniel’s! Chopping and changing our recordings to make new songs is a trick I learned from working with Stano, the great post-punk ‘non-musician’, but it’s easy when Mary’s vocals are so free. She isn’t a slave to any way of singing, she makes it her own.
“The album emerged from a remarkably truthful recording, and captured the same energy as a live gig,” he adds.
“It’s a snapshot of the band as we were, prior to lockdown. Since its release just before Christmas, there’s been a whole new blues world opening up for us – we’re surprised by its success but incredibly proud.”
As Mary notes, the record has been greeted with a hugely enthusiastic response. It’s been supported powerfully by Bernard Clarke’s Blue of the Night show on RTÉ Lyric FM; by influential blues DJ Pete Feenstra in the UK; given a 5-star stylle review in Blues in Britain magazine; featured in the Top 50 Contemporary Blues Album radioplay charts; in the Hit Tracks Top 100 in the Netherlands; received radio play on blues stations all over the USA – and generally been attracting loads of attention.
“It highlights people’s passion for roots and blues,” she says. “This is music that really resonates with the gig-loving public, although I find performing live to be a challenge. I won’t say that I walk onstage easily. But the response from the audience – that moment when you know you’ve moved someone – allows you to feel truly human.”
From bringing the celebrated Carey Bell on a tour of rural Cork, to exploring the Mississippi blues trail and gigging with A-listers, Mary and Brian have no shortage of jaw-dropping road yarns to relay.
“There’s a real human link that the blues facilitates, and it has created so many amazing moments for us,” Mary enthuses. “Sometimes I sit back and wonder how on earth they happened. The first big encounters were with BB King and John Lee Hooker – we exchanged stories like an extended family would. Then there was my mother singing in the Academy with Buddy Guy, the elder statesman of Chicago blues.
“We played three gigs with him, and he had this habit of going walkabout through the audience. He’d get people to sing with him, and on one occasion, he happened to sit down right beside my mother. I was onstage squinting at Buddy and Peggy performing the blues!”
Brian, meanwhile, has his own highlights.
“We toured with Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player,” he says. “We played with him when he did five or six shows in Ireland. Howlin’ died in ‘76, and Hubert refused to play ‘Smokestack Lightning’ afterwards, until Mary convinced him to perform it in Whelan’s. The guys in the band nearly fainted. That was a wow moment.
“Another crazy memory was Fats Domino requesting us to do all of his Irish gigs when he landed here. One night on the tour, he asked me to walk him up to his room in the Burlington Hotel, and we found a deserted piano in the lobby. We hesitated for a second, before Fats threw off the cover and played his all-time greatest hits. He said to me, ‘I’ve been singing those songs for 50 years, but that’s the first time someone sang them to me’.”
There was a notable postscript to the story.
“We were later watching footage of his house underwater after Hurricane Katrina, when Fats was presumed lost,” recalls Brian. “Turned out he was in the Louisiana Superdome the entire time – a living American icon, sitting there while his house and trophies were completely underwater. It was like the chaos of America all came down around him.”
Mary and Brian maintain that the band’s high-octane music is often met with surprise from certain audiences, who are unaccustomed to hearing Irish musicians perform jazz, blues and roots.
“When they’re walking down Grafton Street, people never expect to hear an amazing blues band,” says Brian. “As an American, I can hear a difference in the Irish approach to blues. I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it has a flexibility to it.”
“I’ve always sung traditional Celtic music when called upon,” adds Mary, “but I was raised by the blues. It speaks to me as an Irish woman, not because I’m trying to be someone else. I don’t have any fear of that.”
Brian reflects on recent discussions about the blues.
“In the blues fraternity at the moment, there is a bit of controversy about white domination of the genre,” Brian says. “Being a white person playing blues was often a disadvantage in Ireland, because a black person was seen as more authentic. Now, there’s anger and division in the States over this issue. It’s quite ugly, but blues music will always enter the space where it’s needed.”
“At what point do we say that music stops evolving?” Mary adds, noting the origins of the genre in Africa prior to the US. “I don’t have any concern, because I feel there’s a legitimate way of allowing blues to have its freedom. I reject the idea that we should stick to one type of music just because we’re Irish. Enjoying each other’s differences will keep us going through these dark days.”
• Comin’ Home is out now.