Mark and Jill Sing the Blues… And Then Some!

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SARATOGA SPRINGS – This past week I was invited to attend Mark and Jill’s performance at Caffe Lena on Friday, January 7th. I’m beyond thrilled for the invite and for the fact I got the chance to see them live. What I witnessed was a night chock-full of rich guitar leads, performed by Mark Tolstrup, and swooning vocals from Jill Burnham; sounding like molasses in some areas, while cutting like a knife in others.

Their opening tune, “Come On In My Kitchen,” originally performed by Robert Johnson, was indicative of what was to come. Tolstrup, who danced in and around the downbeat of the music, played a very convincing blues-style guitar. Mixing slide with Travis-picking guitar parts, his sound, to this particular listener, was extremely reminiscent of Doc Watson and Jorma Kaukonen. While I knew Jill Burnham, I’d never gotten the chance to hear her sing for any length of time. By the third song in, I realized how skilled she is.

“She’s On Top,” an original tune from the duo, and the first song Burnham performed lead vocals on, blew me away. It’s quite clear: with a vocal delivery that clearly shows a marked sense of conviction, sultriness, and an overall sense of Delta-blues gravitas, Burnham really shines behind the mic. What makes this duo special, for me, is that both members are equipped with interesting and effective voices. From tender duets to snarling leads, Mark’s booming baritone voice fits within both quite well. As the night oscillated between more biting melodies, to those that are more laid back within the tune, it was evident the duo is skilled at both.

As the night continued, there was no doubt in my mind why these folks continue climbing and achieving accolades. Last year saw Mark and Jill winning the Capital Region Blues Network Solo/Duo Blues Challenge for the second time, and as a result, they’ll be going to Memphis in May for the International Blues Challenge. But as the set kept chugging forward, blues was hardly all the duo tackled. From jaunty numbers, to evocative duets, the two really covered a lot of ground. Their banter between songs, as well as their performance throughout the show not only brought to light their love for one another, but their love for the genres of gospel, Americana, and blues they play, and perform with such reverence.

While the night consisted largely of original tunes, Mark and Jill performed covers as well, each one carefully curated to show their respects for the original songwriter. An example of this was their version of “In Spite of Ourselves,” written by John Prine. Quirkily performed, the dalliance that Mark demonstrated with the timing of his guitar playing on this tune, in this listener’s opinion, was a statement to the playful sort of love these two seem to quite clearly have for one another. Another great cover the duo played was “I Held My Baby Last Night,” written by Elmore James. As Mark stated, not only did the groove change for their version, but so did the lyrics; Caffe Lena was inserted into the words. Throughout their performance I kept thinking, quite literally, “Damn! It sounds like a slew of players on that stage, yet it’s only one guitar, two vocals, and an occasional tambourine!”

Another highlight for me occurred during the last quarter or so of the show. On “When a Woman,” a Mark and Jill original, Burnham demonstrated just how powerful her voice is. An incredible tune through-and-through, it served well to re-energize the crowd. As the night came to an end, the duo came back for one last tune. Closing with an encore of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” was an unusual choice, but a choice that fit the pair so amazingly well. Though they’re known for mainly being a blues-based band, these two have so much to offer. If you ever can, please go do your ears a favor and check them out. You won’t regret it.

Setlist (Songs written by Mark and Jill, except where noted):

Come On In My Kitchen [Robert Johnson]
Come Here Baby
She’s On Top
How Birds Fly
Rain’s Gonna Stop
Might Not Get It
In Spite of Ourselves [John Prine]
Nothing In Ramblin [Memphis Minnie]
OOH-La LA [Mark and Jill, Hank Soto]
Held My Baby Last Night [Elmore James]
Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning [Blind Willie Johnson]
City in the Rain [Mark Tolstrup]
When A Woman
What You Gonna Do [The Staple Sisters]
Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues [Ida Cox]

Encore:
Down In the Hole [Tom Waits]

I had a chance to chat with the two after the show, and what follows is said conversation. Continue reading below to find out what this duo has in store for us in 2022!

Lucas Garrett: Hey, Mark! Hey Jill! Terrific show! How have the two of you been?

Mark & Jill: Hey Lucas. We have been hanging in there.

LG: As you know, Caffe Lena welcomed myself, your duo, and lots of other artists and bands to perform a virtual concert at their venue. While it was undoubtedly kind, and humbling for a venue to take care of us, how did it feel to be back onstage at Lena performing in front of an actual audience?

M&J: It was great to have a live audience. Everyone seemed happy to be out in the world and to be there. The streaming shows were a great way to bring music to everyone during the shutdown but there is nothing quite like a live audience.

LG: Lots of great content throughout this night! Where can we find your music, if we don’t make it to one of your shows?

M&J: We recorded a CD Live at Caffe Lena and that is available at www.rootblues.com. Our gigs will also be posted there and you can follow us on Facebook and Instagram at Mark and Jill Sing the Blues.

LG: Do the two of you have any plans for a new release? And if so, when can we expect said release?

M&J: Yes! We are working on songs for the next project due out later this year.

LG: Before we part ways, is there any thing you’d like to discuss? The floor is yours!

M&J: We’ve all been through a really difficult time these past few years. This evening felt really great because people came out to see us live and it felt like things were coming back to life. The Blues challenge in Memphis has been rescheduled for May, 2022, and we are looking forward to better days ahead. Thank you so much for your time, Lucas!

LG: Congratulations on such an amazing show! Talk later!

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