Mark Tolstrup and Jill Burnham – Mark & Jill Sing the Blues | Album Review

Mark Tolstrup and Jill Burnham – Mark & Jill Sing the Blues


CD: 10 Songs, 43 Minutes

Styles: Acoustic Blues, Folk, Mellow Blues

“Too blues for country, too country for the blues.” That’s the motto of the Nouveaux Honkies, and the title of their signature song. However, it also applies to the style of New York’s Mark Tolstrup and Jill Burnham, performing live from Saratoga Springs’ Caffè Lena on their newest album, Mark & Jill Sing the Blues. This warm, unpretentious release features ten songs tailor-made for lovers of folk and mellow blues. As Mark himself says, “There’s an honesty to it. The songs have stories to them. I don’t like music that’s too smooth or contrived.” As a New York Blues Hall of Fame inductee, he knows what he and his audience are after. Right before COVID-19 struck the world, on January 18, 2020, Mark and Jill performed this live concert, not knowing it would be one of their last. They relaxed and energized an appreciative crowd, like hot java is supposed to do. With Mark providing robust male vocals and Jill in heartfelt harmony, they give one’s spirits a boost. Whether country, blues, or in between, that’s what music is meant for.

Sarah Craig, the executive director of Caffè Lena, offers high praise for our leading man: “Sometimes you know a performer is thinking about something other than the song. With Mark Tolstrup, that is never the case. He becomes completely at one with his instrument, with the journey of the song.” This wholehearted dedication to their art has led Mark and Jill to become the winners of the Capital Region Blues Network 2019 competition, and to compete in the International Blues Challenge on January 28, 2020. Such accolades are richly deserved.

Although this is a duo album, guest musician Frank Orsini accompanies Mark and Jill on vocal harmony, fiddle and mandolin.

“Come Here, Baby,” a Tolstrup original, begins the live concert and gets the audience in a pure-blues mood. Mark’s guitar, as crisp as the winter day on which it was performed, lulls one into a trance from the opening notes of the intro. Frank Orsini’s fiddle is like hot butter on pancakes: the perfect finishing touch. Next comes Ry Cooder’s “I Got Mine,” an old-fashioned ditty about gambling – and getting away with the winnings after you’ve clearly lost. “Thirty dollar bet was laying on the table. My buddy’s point was nine. Then the police came, and I grabbed all of them, and I got mine. I got mine…Out the back door I went flying!” A sizzling cover of Elmore James’ “Held My Baby” follows a bit farther down the line, as does one of the most heartbreaking songs yours truly has ever heard: “How Birds Fly,” a meditation on the fallout of alcoholism and drug abuse. The next three gospel songs remind us to love our neighbor and follow the Golden Rule “or you might not get it at all.” Such a prescription is sorely needed.

Mark & Jill Sing the Blues will pep you up and soothe your soul!

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