Mark Tolstrup – North Star
Self-Release – 2018
13 tracks; 53 minutes
Mark Tolstrup is from Saratoga, NY, and this is his first release since 2007. The album contains eight originals and five covers, some of it blues, some not. Mark is on guitar and vocals, his step-daughter Jessica Wern plays drums and sings, James Gascogne is on bass and Chris Carey on organ; other musicians involved are Oona Grady (fiddle), Dave Lambert (tenor sax and clarinet), Jeanine Ouderick (baritone sax), Woody Strobeck (trombone), Rick Bolton (harp/vocals) and Sharon Bolton (vocals and graphic design).
Mark’s world-weary vocals fit well with the material and Jessica often doubles up on the vocal lines, as on the bittersweet “I Don’t Know” which has a late night flavour courtesy of Dave’s sax work. Two songs deal with the recent passing of Mark’s father and brother: ‘Northstar’ was written for his father’s funeral and reflects on the sense of loss, a quiet reflective eulogy accompanied just by Mark’s guitar and keys; “Free Brother” follows a similar pattern with reference to his late brother. “City In The Rain” and instrumental album closer “Requiem For Coyote” both fit into the ‘Americana’ category, the latter having a military drum beat over which fiddle, bottleneck slide and the horns join in. Mark’s blues influences are represented on “Milk And Honey” which has some good slide work and lyrics that reference “black cat bones” and “walking in the moonlight”. “Hey Hey Baby” is an infectious uptempo romp with the horns prominent and “Old Man’s Blues” tells the story of an old bluesman over a tune with a hint of New Orleans and featuring Mark’s slide.
The covers include a version of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” which coveys a sense of menace through the tough vocals, the traditional “Haunted House Blues” with just guitar and bass and Floyd Dixon’s “My Song Is Don’t Worry” which blends country blues with deep baritone sax. “Dead Man’s Shirt” (by fellow NY State musician Michael Eck) is definitely blues with some strident harp but Tom Waits’ “On The Nickel” is more folk with plaintive fiddle in a version that brings mid-period Dylan to mind.
Overall this album is not all blues but does present a variety of styles. It may therefore appeal to those with broad tastes.