Ken Wallis Chats With Mary Stokes and Brian Palm Of The Mary Stokes Band
The Mary Stokes Band hails from Dublin, Ireland, and for over twenty years they’ve been rocking the Blues around the world. Mary belts out the Blues vocals, and Brian wails along on harmonica. Accompanied by guitarist Sarah Michelle, the band features contemporary and traditional Blues all rolled into one.
They have won a boatload of music awards, including Blues And Roots Radio’s prestigious annual award for 'Album Of The Year 2021'. They’ve played with many Blues legends and they are swiftly becoming legends themselves.
Ken Wallis interviewed Mary Stokes and Brian Palm for the radio show BluesSource International. The following are excerpts from that interview, edited for brevity and clarity,
Ken Wallis The Mary Stokes Band has a brand-new album, it’s called Let 'Er Roll and joining us to tell us all about it are Mary Stokes and Brian Palm. Thanks guys.
Mary Stokes Thank you Ken for inviting us, it's great to talk to you again.
Brian Palm Absolutely great to be here Ken.
Ken Wallis I really think the title of the album is rather apt. Why did you select that one?
Brian Palm Well, it's time to throw away the B.S. and Let ‘Er Roll ladies and gentlemen. No fear. When you're making a record, there is that question of whoa, what are we gonna do and how's it going to sound? As it worked out, instead of really worrying about what does that mean side of art, we had to rehearse a new rhythm section and we just started playing some shuffles. We were getting ready for a very busy schedule we had in the summer. Before we knew it, we already had a whole bunch of 12 bar boogies down. We then went on to record some of the songs that particular band members wanted. Our guitarist wanted to play the Billy Boy Arnold song into Maggie's Farm. She loves the way we do that. So, then we did I Wish You Would. And Dearest Darling. As Mary says, we had never really recorded it properly. We had tried to record it and we've been playing it for our whole career, so we thought this time let's just bite the bullet.
Mary Stokes I think the immediacy of something like Let ‘Er Roll is like “okay let's go”. We really do have to acknowledge kind of coming past Covid, or at least learning to live with Covid, there is a kind of what do we do? There's nervousness and a little bit of trouble, a little bit of trepidation…
Brian Palm Flying on a plane. Really who wants to get stuck on a plane?
Mary Stokes So Let ‘Er Roll has that going on as well. It's got an immediacy. We were talking about it afterwards. We were thinking each song has its own kind of little story to it, and then as the album goes through, it's almost like different shades of relationships.
Brian Palm Almost every one of them is a love song. One of our favourite tracks of all time and people to play with, is Byther Smith and we played with Byther in ‘95 I think it was. We did a great gig with him, then we had a great meal together. We went out on the town after the gig, and we jammed at house parties. He was an elder statesman of the Blues but the acoustic was thrown at him and people were drinking and passing joints but nonetheless Byther just basically had a great night, and because it was the summer, by the time we left the party it was dawn. We were walking home through this Irish town called Enniscorthy in County Wexford and Byther was saying, It's been amazing, the gig was packed full and then we had a little hug and said good night. The next time we talked to him was after Katrina. I called him and he was watching the TV looking for relatives and he was very upset. So, I said we've just recorded Blues On The Moon and he said yeah you can cut it. We decided in his honour, since he passed, to do a heartfelt version.
Mary Stokes The opening lyric of that song is “I'm talking to my friends out there you people all think I am lying“ and he actually told us about that. He described how he was in the town that he had come from after he had traveled and become a giant of the Blues.
Brian Palm And he went back home to Mississippi and everybody was like, yeah you're bullshitting me. You've never been there, you've never done this or that, you've never flown in a plane to Europe. He made sure that his family was all on the guest list for the gig. Not one of them turned up. He just looked at me and he said when you're playing around the world, you just want your home people to hear you and to appreciate it.
Mary Stokes You need to be revisiting things because you look at songs that maybe you might take for granted, as part of a set that we perform, or that we've recorded, but your recording doesn't allow you to stand back and kind of think, wait where am I in this ? What's it got? What am I saying here?
Ken Wallis One thing that really struck me when I listened to the album, it almost sounds like a live album as if I'm in the studio with you hearing it as it's being recorded.
Brian Palm This is what we strive for Ken, thanks man. Exactly what we tried to do.
Mary Stokes There is always going to be a challenge in recording Blues, and it is one that we're so familiar with. We walk into a studio understanding that we're going to be told, oh no you can't do that, oh no you couldn't do that. It's hard because you're trying to be confident about recording, and that's not necessarily our area of expertise, and sometimes it's a bit unnerving. If someone is an expert in something and they say well, no that won't work, it's a hard balance to respect people's expertise and yet maintain your vision.
Brian Palm You have a smash and grab one night. You can afford to get in and do as much as you can and there's always the same factors. The first is most musicians get a little studio paranoia. They're aware that it's going down, you have to kind of play safe. If you play crazy, the way you might when live, you can regret it when it's been recorded. If anyone is nervous and they start drinking or something, they're not as articulate as they might be normally. So, all these things within the band you have to watch.
Secondly, musicians and engineers will say if you can do three or four songs you're lucky. Mary and I and the lads can do a gig start to finish with no double do’s, no over dubs, no double takes. If you can do a gig for an hour and a half, you can play 10 to 15 songs in one night. And the engineers go, you can't. So, over the years, we've had two or three songs that we recorded with one group of people in one studio. Then you can't use them because by the time you try to get another three, the band has changed.
You're in a different place and they don't sound the same. One's jazzier. one's rockabilly. So, to get everything in one night, everything sounds the same, same band, same settings, same mics. And then you spend a year going through it, trying to get the warts off. During the whole process to finish is every step of the way, “oh you can't do that, no, no, no, you can't do that”, and then you get through that and then there's the mix, and then the mastering “oh no, you can't do that”. In each case they're trying to take away exactly what you just said, the warmth, the feeling that you're right there with the band, the spontaneous feeling of it being live. They try to take that away. Now ,I might sound like I'm paranoid. I don't think they mean to, but I think it's the way people are taught, this has to be done, then this has to be done.
Mary Stokes You see, it's a balance and this is what we hope came across as well on Let ‘Er Roll. We were using the studio as the facility to enhance what you capture, because therein lies another challenge. If you're going for a live recording, it is what it is, and you have either some little effect or whatever, but, we don't do much and I'm happy to say generally speaking, I do it in one take and let's go with this. You like to play the song with the band and that's the warmth that I feel when the band is cooking. If you can capture that then you've got the really good hot dinner right off the stove, on the plate, boom and you're ready to eat.
Ken Wallis Another thing that really struck me about the album is you've got some Rory Gallagher on there.
Mary Stokes We met Rory many times, but the first time I met Rory was when I was a small kid, when he was playing in Dublin, and he played a series of gigs every year in a place called The Stadium, which was a boxing stadium of all things. It was transformed into a gig venue, and my brothers were of an age with Rory and they were doing some work and some business together. I went with my brothers and after the gig they were going to the hotel to meet Rory and talk about something. I remember walking in, and it was a very old-fashioned but very beautiful hotel in the center of the city. I remember walking in, sheepishly behind my two brothers, and there's Rory on his own unwinding and chilling. I would have been just eye’s open wide with wonder and subsequently we then became close to him.
Brian Palm In fact, he jammed at our gig one night. We were playing in a place called the Waterfront and we had quite a big crowd following and Rory Gallagher's in the audience. Rory said what are we going to do? So we were half trying to figure out while we were gigging. The next thing Van Morrison walks in. So now everyone's like are Rory and Van Morrison gonna get up? Who's getting up first? Now we're a little concerned, we didn't know what to do.
Mary Stokes There's genuine respect for both musicians and then you actually do have a dilemma. Van solved the problem for us by having an issue with someone and storming out.
Brian Palm So, Rory got up and he tore the roof down.
Mary Stokes As a musician in Ireland, he broke through on this massive level. Rory Gallagher was there first as was Thin Lizzy. Rory roared on the stage and what he did was, he was absolutely committed and energetic and sensitive and brilliant in his performance. The last time that we met Rory was at a Blues Festival in Dublin. At the time we were going to be performing several gigs at that. Brian is also as a visual artist and he had an exhibition of Blues paintings going up around the various venues.
Brian Palm We were going in with the last couple of paintings and Mary was carrying a picture of Sonny Boy Williamson, and next thing Rory says, “well it makes sense”.
Mary Stokes He looked up and he was just smirking at me.
Brian Palm He said “who else would be carrying the picture of Sonny Boy Williamson except Mary Stokes?”
Mary Stokes He was so experienced; he had played throughout the world and yet, at that moment in that situation he was really nervous. He hadn't played Dublin for a number of years. He said lads I don't know how it's going to go.
Brian Palm He bought us a pint and he said don't tell anyone I bought you’re a pint, I don't buy pints for anyone.
Mary Stokes He recognized that Dublin had changed, and there was a different headspace going on. He said I don't know if people will still want to hear me, and I said Rory, everyone loves you, they're going to be mental for you. He burst onto the stage, grabbing the audience by the throat. It was just phenomenal. He was brilliant.
Brian Palm For years we've wanted to do a tribute to him. There's too many Rory Gallagher cover bands to want to go out and do a whole set of him. We finally decided on Sinnerboy, and we just went with that and that one just happened really well. It's a bit of a monster.
Mary Stokes But there's another part to that. All around the world there's such a difficult problem with people who are homeless or people who have addiction issues. Seeing the lyrics again is so vital for me because I'm committed to what I'm singing. I really can’t sing something that's just a throwaway. I have to have some understanding of it. He starts out with city streets and rolling cars and there's so much busyness going on and over there, there's some geezer against the wall with the hand on the bottle. It's an entire story within itself. It's interesting with Blues that sometimes you can actually look at today and it's there.
Ken Wallis You really got me a couple of times listening to the album. I'm listening to a tune and all of a sudden you break into the Doors, Break On Through To The Other Side, and then the Bob Dylan tune comes out of nowhere as well.
Brian Palm That’s what that's supposed to catch you like you it did.
Mary Stokes If nothing else, I think that between myself and Brian, there are a lot of reasons why you choose to explore something, but Blues is at the roots of everything in terms of every kind of rock music.
Brian Palm Without trying to preach to an audience, over the years we've always tried to do a little bit of education in terms of well, Led Zeppelin didn't really write Where The Levee Breaks by the way. So, to try to educate without being pedantic in school, that Bo diddley riff, it's the same riff as the Doors. There is a correlation, a connection between Bo Diddley and what he was doing and how it was picked up by Jim Morrison and those guys. Equally Maggie's Farm on Billy Boy Arnold's song, I think is fascinating because at Newport when Dylan went electric, he was using the Butterfield Band as his backing band. Being in a band sometimes you have to just do what we all know how to do. With that sort of history when Dylan then recorded Maggie's Farm with those guys, it was exactly like I Wish You Would, so we thought well let's run them into each other. We don't do medleys, but these are little in-jokes that I I'm so glad that you got. It’s sort of a tip of the hat to some of the great ones.
Mary Stokes I have to say I like the fact that there's a bit of a Punky element to Ain't Going To Work On Maggie's Farm No More, it allows me to express my defiance.
Ken Wallis Where can folks get a hold of the album?
On Bandcamp and the link is themarytokesband.bandcamp.com which is working really effectively. It's important that people know they can download the tracks, but they can also buy the physical album on Bandcamp. We established the mailing and I ship it out to people pretty quickly.
Ken Wallis One last question. Any plans on coming to North America?
Brian Palm Yes, we're gonna stay at your house, in fact the whole band will be staying with you. We like Italian food. [laugh]
Mary Stokes Yes of course. At the same time the practicalities and logistics is a challenge getting everyone over and ensuring that everything is in place. There are really brilliant musicians that we have worked with in the U.S. and brilliant musicians in Canada. We're going to be representing Ireland at the European Blues Challenge in June, and it's in Poland. The European Blues Challenge is part of the International Blues Challenge so when we win in Poland, we will be going to Memphis.
Ken Wallis And I'll tell you one thing I will be in the front row in Memphis if that's what it takes
Brian Palm You'll be on stage brother with us [laughter]