Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Mary Stokes Band featuring Sarah Michelle - Comin' Home

Ever watch Masterchef on the telly?  You know when they get a likeable contestant, who cooks something that tastes good, and looks okay, but which the judges think lacks the “wow factor”?  That, in essence, was my initial response to this “live in the studio” album from Ireland’s Mary Stokes Band.
My first impression, listening to the opening title track of Comin’ Home, was of your favourite local blues band.  That’s a compliment – they’re good enough to be reliably enjoyable, without bum notes or poor playing marring their performance.  But it’s also a reflection of a less than
The Mary Stokes Band do a good job of saying "cheese"!
adventurous first couple of verses and choruses.  Sure, the chugging groove is inviting, Mary Stokes’ vocals hit all the notes satisfyingly enough, and Brian Palm contributes some tasteful, songbird-like harmonica.  But it all seems a bit decorous, a bit tame.  Until, that is, guitarist Sarah Michelle goes to work.  She cuts in with a fuzzy, edgy guitar solo that dirties things up and brings more character to the party.  After which, to be fair, all concerned rouse themselves in pursuit of a more animated ending to the song.
And this recipe is pretty much repeated on the following ‘Moonshine’, which swings well enough but also sports some prosaic lyrics.  So at this point I’m asking myself if they’ll continue to play it safe and rely on Michelle’s guitar work to enliven proceedings, or if they can get out of their comfort zone and serve up something different.
Fair play to them though, they do find some fresh ingredients to spice things up.  ‘Mattie Won’t Write’ is a stuttering slowie, with a minimalist, repetitive lyric – and it’s a mood piece that works.  There’s more depth to Palm’s harp playing, more variation in Stokes’ singing, and a sense of more dynamics all round.  ‘Fine And Mellow’ is exactly what it says on the tin.  Slow and jazzy, it plays to Stokes’ strengths vocally, and she ups the interest quotient accordingly.  Harp and piano make fluttering contributions – the latter, courtesy of Dermot Stokes, not much in evidence hitherto – and a Sarah Michelle guitar solo adds extra guts.  The following ‘Mola Di Bari’ adds a different flavour too, with a funky guitar riff and slinky bass from Chris Byrne, and another less-is-more lyric.  A Palm harp break slots in well, but the real centrepiece – again – is a teasing solo from Michelle.
Along the way ‘Baby How Long?’ combines a bright and bubby riff with harp filigrees, and Stokes’ piano flits into earshot to good effect.  It swings for sure, and if it’s still a little on the safe side there’s still some urgency to the harp solo, with an extra helping of guitar solo sizzle.  And later on ‘Can’t Hold Out Much Longer’ and ‘Help Me’ both cut the mustard, the former with its strong, winding riff and guttural guitar solo, and the latter with its enjoyable turn around and ‘Green Onions’ groove.
The highlight though, is ‘Story Of Bo Diddley’, a seven minute plus excursion that still manages to be brisk and spiky, leavened with light, shade and wit, and with Michelle at her best as she stretches out on some slithering, scraping, serpentine guitar work.  And after the live-without-able ‘At The Christmas Ball’ they close strongly with ‘Long Way From Home’, locking into a strutting, gritty riff, with stabs of piano and an energetic vocal, while Michelle sharpens her six-string blade and slices through the middle like Sweeney Todd feeling peckish for a fresh pie.
The Mary Stokes Band do what they do like pros, and when they stir some imagination into the pot they create some pleasing fare.  It’s only right that guitarist Sarah Michelle is given a specific namecheck though, because where there’s a “wow factor” on Comin' Home it’s down to her confident, assertive playing.

Comin' Home is available now, and can be ordered here.

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