Mary Stokes Band featuring Sarah Michelle – Comin’ Home
13 songs – 63 minutes
Based out of Dublin, where she’s been at the forefront of the Irish blues scene since the late ‘80s, Mary Stokes teams with rising session guitarist Sarah Michelle for the first time on this set, a studio recording that’s billed as delivering a sound true to what audiences hear from the stage.
Mary’s considered nationally to be one of the finest vocalists of her generation. And she’s no stranger to the big stage, having worked with Rory Gallagher and Georgie Fame as well as a litany of top U.S. talent ranging from B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Lowell Fulson to Jeff Healey, Carey and Lurrie Bell and Taj Mahal, among others.
Most the tunes here were captured at Displace Studio in Dublin during a run-through rehearsal for an upcoming live show in April 2019, which was Michelle’s first gig as a member of the group. Two others were captured a few months earlier at Sonic Studios, where Stokes’ crew were rehearsing with Shobsy O’Brien, who’s lead singer for the alt-rock band State Lights. And a third was recorded at the height of the coronavirus epidemic as a contribution to Hot Press Magazine’s “Rave on Van Morrison” project.
Rounding out the lineup are Dermot Stokes on piano, Brian Palm on harp, Chris Byrne on bass and Robbie Barrett on drums. Steve Tierney (bass) and Kevin Lawlor (drums) hold down rhythm for the O’Brien tracks, and the entire project was mixed by rock producer/guitarist Pete Holidai, a founding member of both the ‘70s rockers The Radiators from Space and their current incarnation, Trouble Pilgrims.
The medium-fast original shuffle “Comin’ Home” percolates from the jump as Stokes announces she’ll be arriving soon and hopes the person she hopes to see won’t be gone. Her voice is strong and animated, but the song includes somewhat pedestrian runs on the reeds and a heavy, mid-tune six-string solo better suited for the rock arena.
Fortunately, Both Palm and Michelle find their sea legs as Mary delivers “Moonshine,” an original that finds her in trouble and ready to hit the road. An interesting retooling of the traditional “Mattie Won’t Write” — which served as the title tune of Mary’s 2014 EP – follows before a traditional, uptempo take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Baby How Long” that doesn’t have much bite. The same holds true for a cover of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” While Stokes is no Billie, she holds her own, but the band never seems to find the pocket and the tune drags in spots.
“Mola di Bari” – a tribute to the quaint Italian village – stands out as the best song in the set, and cooks throughout, a feel that continues in a tasty reworking of the Little Walter warhorse, “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” that allows Michelle plenty of space to work out. But a cover of “Roll with the Punches” misses somewhat because the Chicago-style blues band arrangement lacks the intricate timing of Morrison’s original.
O’Brien joins the action for the next two cuts: a duet of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s all-too-familiar “Help Me” and a reprise of “Mattie.” The latter is a clever redo that differs dramatically from the previous version. The former would have been better placed on the cutting room floor. Three more tunes – takes on Bo Diddley’s “Story of Bo Diddley,” Bessie Smith’s “At the Christmas Ball” and the original “Long Way from Home” – bring the action to a close.
Available both as a CD and Bandcamp download, Comin’ Home possibly could have used more rehearsal as some songs shine and others don’t.