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A Conversation with Mary Stokes and Brian Palm of The Mary Stokes Band



By Ken Wallis



The Mary Stokes band hails from Dublin, Ireland and have been tearing up the blues world for over two decades. Their music is a fusion of blues and rock with a definite Irish twist. Mary can belt out a tune in a rockin’ style or in a sultry ballad. Her life companion Brian Palm knows how to wail on his harmonica and along with superb guitarist Sarah Michelle, the Mary Stokes Band erupts in a wall of sound that has been featured in the U.K., Europe and North America.


Ken Wallis interviewed the pair for his radio show Blues Source International. The following excepts are taken from that interview.





Ken Wallis

The Mary Stokes band has a new album out called Comin’ Home. And to talk all about it, we're joined by Mary Stokes, who does all the vocals and the great harmonica player Brian Palm. Thanks for coming on, guys. It's nice to see you.


Mary Stokes

It's really great to be here. And thank you so much for your support and your interest. I'm delighted you like the album.


Ken Wallis

Well, it's a great album. And I guess my first question is, where did the album title come from?


Mary Stokes

So it comes from a title song of the album. But Comin’ Home is an original song. And myself and Brian would have worked it out many moons ago. I think there's so many reasons why Comin’ Home means something in terms of blues, but also in terms of being Irish. And many times we've played gigs, over the years where, for example, people would have been away…maybe they might have been to Canada, or they might go to work all around the world. So immigration is part of a feature of Irish music. And sometimes I think that with blues, we make a connection between being Irish and playing blues. And I don't feel that it's foreign in any way. But it's important to remember that when people arrive at a gig, and it also happens where we play maybe regular gigs, once a year. And there's the sense that I'm going to get there, I'll see you and I'll be with you. And we'll be able to have time together. So that was my feeling, Brian?


Brian Palm

Oh, yeah…I was just thinking of getting back to North America. And with the people that we love over there will still be there when we get there. When you travel a lot of things change in your absence. And you re-enter other people's orbit that has continued without you. So that's always been an interesting thing for any artist. I think that coming home…you, go in order to come home, you have to go away. I guess that's part of the analogy there, too.


Mary Stokes

But it's funny just to complete that then…when we were thinking about this last year, I should say one of the realities, of course, is that many of the touchstone events that we would have expected to participate in that we would have brought our music to…those weren't available. I actually…I really feel that, for me that it was part of an expression of a sort of a longing to get back to a place where we're all together and we can join and we can enjoy live music.


Ken Wallis

Now, you've mentioned the Irish influence…do you find there’s a difference between audiences, between Europe and North America?


Brian Palm

People of course, blues lovers or music lovers are everywhere. There's a difference, I'll say professionally to the circuit in America and playing the circuit in Europe. And as such, you would have differences in the audience. One of the main ones we found was the inability to turn the TV set off, there'd be sports on the TV. And you'd be in the middle of a slow song where Mary would be singing this passionate, slow Billie Holiday number and a big cheer would go up for something that was on the TV set. And in Ireland, we made sure that the times we played there would never be a TV on when we were playing because it is disruptive. I believe also in in America, you often get musicians who were trained in high school. So they would often go on to have an understanding of playing in the high school band, and then the next thing they're playing, you know, they know what a shuffle is, in Ireland, you have to seek out blues lovers in order for them to be able to differentiate a Texas shuffle from a Chicago shuffle. And otherwise I can play blues, whack, whack, and we've had that thing where the combat boot is in the washing machine all night…it can make for a difficult show, when you're trying to be creative, and expressive.


Mary Stokes

I think also Ken, I really would suggest as well that things and music in Ireland it's like…music and drink tours. Obviously people will think drink is important, but it is part of what we are as Irish people. If you capture your audience in Ireland…if you catch the attention of the audience, they are with you. It's such an incredible level of enthusiasm and willingness. And there's an energy…actually even on the island of Ireland, as small as we are, there's variants even there. Sometimes we played on the east coast of Ireland, and then over to do a gig on the west coast. And they're completely mad on the west coast of Ireland. Myself and Brian are partners in life as well as in music. And one of the things that we have realized is that there is a fundamental language, no matter where we have traveled there are two things that I think I would feel are important. Number one that blues is not about…it's not always about being laid back, I see it being a base energy, and a sort of defiance. And I think that that's when you present with power. The conviction that you deliver…and if you deliver with conviction, and if you deliver with truth, and truth is what it comes down to. We have band members that we worked with over in Spain…in all parts of Spain, where there's no English being spoken and everybody understands the blues. So perhaps in Canada, where you would have players who would understand or would speak French fluently, but you're sure that you have the principle, you have the key, right? And then once you get past that point, then you actually are speaking the same language.


Brian Palm

Our last jam in Canada was a perfect illustration of that. Up in Trois Rivieres. We were at a family wedding. And then the next day, we were having breakfast in the hotel and there was the piano player playing along you know, cocktail lounge style. So I whispered in his ear the key and off we went and the next thing was quite a jam session broke out in the hotel.


Mary Stokes

Yeah, so Brian started it. He's, all I can say, he's the instigator.


Ken Wallis

You've had what, 10 albums so far... and your first album was 20 years ago. So do you feel your music has progressed from the first one?


Mary Stokes

I would say absolutely…again, one of the challenges and one of the really significant elements and motivators to record… when you play blues, a lot of the time the emphasis and the energy comes from live gigging. I know things are a little bit topsy turvy. But one of the challenges despite that has been to capture a live feel and understanding of what the live band would feel like and sound like in a recording studio. So 20 years ago, we captured out of a variety of different recordings, and brought them together as a statement of what we were at that time.


Brian Palm

I just refer back to your first question about the title Comin’ Home. A lot of the songs on this album were songs that we had done at the very beginning of our careers.


Mary Stokes

Myself and Brian started working in blues, and kind of by chance almost. Brian was working with in an acoustic setup and doing a lot of busking. And at the time, I was interested in the social aspect. In other words, I wanted to get to know Brian and I was hanging around and began joining them. My knowledge of blues is pretty strong, because I grew up in a house where blues is played a lot and we have worked through very many different styles and genres in blues…much of what we've done has been facilitated by the musicians. For example, when we did one album, which is acoustic which we love…it's a very different piece than what we present in this album. Sometimes we work to where we would have a fundamental basic track. In that acoustic set of recordings, we brought other instruments in so we would have had fiddle and we had piano…, you know, and we had a whole range…we worked with Irish harp. We had a great opportunity at that time, and we're very friendly with them…the band, Hothouse Flowers, who are very well known.


Ken Wallis

On the album Comin’ Home, what struck me first were your vocals. And then the one two punch came when the harmonica came in, and I love harmonica.


Brian Palm

[LAUGHING] You got it…I’m a hockey player as well!


Ken Wallis

How do you two decide on what songs you're gonna pick? Do you write your stuff together? Or do you do it separately?


Mary Stokes

Well, I have to say that sometimes it's awkward because we're very close to each other. But nonetheless, there are certain things that I would be aware of as, as a woman singing, and this has always been my feeling of being a woman singing blues. And I grew up with, and I understand and recognize the power and the potential for a kind of flip of what would be the sort of Chess masters. So as a route for me….my love of a little older blues, like Howlin' Wolf…Sonny Boy have that power. To be honest, I think with Wolf, sometimes he comes across as just being about power. Whereas it's actually so beautifully dynamic that as a singer, I really need to identify with the lyric. We have The Story Of Bo Didley on this album cause I'm just such a big Bo Diddley fan, and again, that's about the rhythm. The things I identify with would be the lyrics, the power, the capacity, …capacity to have dynamics, and then also a rhythm in terms of choosing songs, we work together on things. In other words, I don't say that I would reject Brian's ideas.


Brian Palm

The blues band template of the Muddy Waters band, is what we sort of base most of our show…the ability to gig on. So the fact that it featured harp, and, you know, powerful lead vocals with a Chicago style blues band, that was our first real entry. Now, over the years…it's not that you want to leave that behind, but musically you do have other ideas. And it's important to have original songs somewhere up your sleeve…we just sort of took some of the basic analog rhythms and put some words to it. That could be right out of the, to me, the blues catalog and how to write a song, which is the way they've been done for years, is take a little bit of someone else's idea and something else. I mean, the riff on The Story Of Bo Diddley…that riff, we based the whole song on is a little section of a Kinks song. So it's not even really from the blues catalog at all…it bares little resemblance to Bo Diddly’s version of that same tune.


Mary Stokes

One thing that I would say about choosing songs is that I always think about the lyrics because I'm delivering them.


Ken Wallis

I understand that you played with a Canadian icon, Jeff Healey, is that correct?


Mary Stokes

It was such a pleasure to meet Jeff and we were very fortunate in an age and a period of time where a lot of blues artists came to Ireland… we met these most extraordinary people like Taj Mahal or like Bo Didley and working with Carrie Bell…the amazing Hubert Sumlin. At that time, Jeff Healey was playing in Dublin at the Olympia Theatre. And so we were at the gig and Jeff had finished.


Brian Palm

There's a very famous bar, where I will say it’s not celebrity VIP, but it's kind of you have to know the guy in order to get in. And that's where we went.


Mary Stokes

So we got to know Jeff, and we were having a really good time. And Jeff said to me I need to use the bathroom. I realized with his sight difficulties, and I didn’t see any problem. I said come with me and I'll show you where it is. It was a crowded bar and a crowded bathroom. I didn’t really think about it much… being a woman on the road you gotta get used to a certain amount of flexibility. You just shout loudly before you go into a men's toilet and say I really am sorry, guys. So I had Jeff on my elbow and as I was entering I realized, hang on, what am I doing here? I'm walking into the men's toilet. So anyway, I stayed outside and someone brought him back. But he was such a charming and lovely guy.


Brian Palm

We were doing another gig at another famous opera house and he came down and jammed with us, which was great. He jammed with us. He walked around and played the guitar not in the lap steel style he was known for, but played as per normal. And after we did a couple of songs I said Jeff Healey from the USA and he yelled out 'Man I'm Canadian'.


Ken Wallis

Again, the album is Comin’ Home, which is absolutely fantastic. Where can music fans get hold of this album?.


Mary Stokes

So we have releases on Bandcamp. And that's kind of quite a deliberate thing in that it is a facility through which people can access it. Now we have the copies of the album and we will be making those available. We have a Facebook page…I think it's important that we make the commitment to get the album to people, we want people to enjoy the music. So I would encourage anyone who likes the album to contact us through the email on Bandcamp.

When you have musicians, and you have something that has a kind of an energy. That really is exciting. And what I'm speaking of here now is our great fortune, through our friends, a bass player, Chris Byrne, who plays on this album, who introduced us to Sarah Michelle on the guitar. I have to say that Sarah Michelle's guitar playing and her professionalism and her interest in recording was something that we really felt deserves to have that sort of capture moments.


Ken Wallis

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you and talking with you and I hope someday I get over there and I hope someday maybe you can get back over to Canada.


Mary Stokes

That's fantastic. And thank you so much. It's great to know that people are hearing us all over the world. Thank you so much Ken.



Bandcamp: themarystokesband.bandcamp.com/album/comin-home

Facebook: www.facebook.com/marystokesband




 

 

 

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