Mark and Jill Define Success on Their Own Terms
Mark and Jill play The Strand Theater in Hudson Falls Sunday night, July 31st, fresh from a triumphant opening set at the Shemekia Copeland concert at Music Haven in Schenectady. That set demonstrated something about how we measure success as artists.
There are as many definitions of success as there are those reaching for that elusive brass ring. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is the feeling of accomplishment we all get in our gut when we know that we’ve done good regardless of the measurement others judge us by.
Mark Tolstrup and his partner Jill Burnham are a success. In the local blues world, Mark has long been a big success. He regularly plays Caffe Lena, arguably the most prestigious showcase of American roots music in the region. He and his partner Jill Burnham have competed twice at the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge (IBC) on Beale St. in Memphis. They made it into the semifinals this year, the first time any act from the Capital Region has made it that far in the history of that event. At one of those performances, there was no judge present, and there were half the normal number of competitors there for this, the first Blues Foundation sponsored IBC since the pandemic started.
Their opening set at Mona Golub’s BBQ and Blues Festival at Music Haven in Schenectady was a disaster waiting to happen on July 28th. All week, the weather forecast had been for solid sunny weather, except for a predicted shower at the precise time the festival was to take place. An hour before Mark and Jill were to take the stage, it poured buckets, and not one single fan was on location to grab an early seat for the best local triple header blues event of the summer.
The start was delayed a half hour, but by 5:30 showtime the sun was out, and Mark and Jill hit it out of the park literally and figuratively. There were at best 100 fans sitting in wet seats at the beginning of their set. Was that a success? By my measure it was. I’d been dying to see them live because, despite pandemic streaming and sequestered phoned-in recordings, blues will always be a live phenomenon. There might as well have been tens of thousands there. They played their hearts out. The chemistry between Mark’s traditional acoustic guitar runs and Jill’s saucy mama vocals was enervating.
Mark has been on the regional scene for decades. Jill is new to the game. I interviewed them together a day before this important gig.
Don Wilcock: How did you two meet?
Jill Burnham: Well, I was actually over at Rick Bolton’s open mike and I was singing a blues song from the ’20s called “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” and Mark happened to also be there, and after my set, he showcased and asked me to come up and sing a gospel song with him which I did not know at the moment, and I sang it anyways. That was our first meeting.
Mark Tolstrup: Jill was playing an Ida Cox tune from the ’20s, and I was like “Nobody plays those old blues around here except me,” so I had a chat with her and really hit it off. (After that meeting) we got together and jammed and played music once in a while, and then we started gigging with the duo, and it kind of picked up steam on its own. We wound up going to the IBC in 2020 and did a bunch of gigs and things got crazy after that, the Covid. But even during Covid, we did a bunch of things.
JB: Yes, the pandemic has been stressful to say the very least. It was difficult in more than one way. I also have children so school shut down, and they needed me at work. (She’s a registered nurse in an emergency room) So, that was complicated, and I have no family here, so it was very difficult to manage everything, and emotionally it was a lot.
Did you find blues to be cathartic during the pandemic?
JB: I don’t know if the pandemic gave me a better feel for the blues, but it definitely gave me a way to express myself and a way to manage stress. The music for me has been very important in my life, dealing with difficult situations and being able to – I don’t know. It’s something I love to do, and it helps me reduce my stress, and it gives me something fun and somewhere to pour my passion into.
What do your four children think of your playing music?
JB: They’re all individuals. So, my oldest is very supportive, and I think it’s great and the two teenagers are slightly indifferent. And my youngest seems very interested in what we’re doing. He’s going to take up the cello, and he’s interested in the keyboards, so we’ll see how that goes.
Is there a chasm between the Pink Floyd cover band Dark Sarcasm that you do background vocals for and the blues you do with Mark, or does it all fit together in some way?
JB: Well, gee, that’s a hard thing to describe. But I guess I started in Dark Sarcasm about six months before I met Mark, and I have a lot of different music, but I think that (big) backing vocals are very soulful, and that’s basically what I’m doing in that band with the big backing vocals. Vocally it works a little different part of my voice. I feel like when rehearsing and those sorts of things I think it was a good way to practice a lot of breathing control. And some of those higher notes I had to do. But I will tell you I’m officially not in that band as of last week.
Whoa! What happened?
JB: I think ultimately, I’m very busy. It was very difficult to manage both bands and the schedule and rehearsals. That other band is out of Albany. There was a lot of driving and rehearsal commitment with them.
MT: She’s a nurse and a mother. We work a lot in the summer. We work two or three times a week. It’s always so much fun.
So, even without that band, I’ll bet you have conflicts.
MT: I manage it pretty well with shared calendars. It gets tricky sometimes.
What does Jill bring to the party that makes you want to be in a duo instead of holding the fort all by yourself?
MT: First of all, all of that stuff, my Tai Chi School, and the playing early blues, and my relationship with Jill; they all combine perfectly in my world. They’re just all connected. So, I think we talked about the martial arts before.
You’ve known me for a long period of time. My first – I don’t know, from teenage to maybe 40 around there, I mostly played solos. I did acoustic slide guitar. That’s what I did. And that still is kind of the basis of what I do, but then I had that period. I played with (the late) Tony Markellis and Dale Haskell. I still play the same way, but I had a couple of other people who played. So, we played for quite a while and of course, that band is gone. Both of those two guys.
I started working with other people, and I played with some horn players and played with some other people and played some New Orleans kind of playing and so as much as I do love the solo thing, it’s nice to have somebody else to collaborate and work with or work off of. What Jill brings to the party I think uniquely is that she has a very natural feel for the blues. She’s just very natural. She just absorbs having grown up in Texas and hearing this stuff and emotionally some of the things that have happened in her life.
She has a very natural feel for the story of the blues but also blues and gospel, which is a big thing for me because the first thing I ever really played was a lot of those gospel tunes back when I was a kid with my family, and her take is natural.
She does it from the gut. That’s what I like. Me, I like a good gut punch. I want to have something that comes from that, and Jill 100% comes that way in a very natural way which is great. I really appreciate that. We started playing together and just kept growing. We kept adding more tunes. Some of the early blues she wasn’t familiar with but had a real natural feel.
Jill, you said there was a tune you first played with him that you didn’t know the lyrics to. How did you fumble your way through that?
MT: She’s good.
JB: <chuckle> Well, it was a gospel song and there was a call and response.
MT: We’ll probably do it tomorrow, “Watcha Gonna Do.” I’ll draw inspiration from The Staples Singers. It’s one of the Staple Singers’ early albums. I don’t really play it like Pop Staples. I play it like I play it. I put my own stamp on it, but that’s definitely where it came from. And so, yeah, I said, “Hey, Jill, come on up and sing it with me,” and she said, “I don’t know it.” I said, “It’s ok. When I sing “Watch gonna do,” you just sing “Watcha gonna do.” Just repeat it like a lot of songs that are set up” and she’s like, “Sure.”
Was that scary, Jill, not to know the song and all of a sudden be thrown into it, or did it feel just natural?
JB: I would say that particular song just felt very natural. I have times where I say, “Oh, I don’t know about this,” but that particular night was totally natural.
MT: As a musician, I’m much more used to it. We sing together a lot. So, it’s important that we sing the same words.
We talked about the IBC at the Sue Foley concert at The Linda.
The IBC is a great thing. It’s a good experience, exposure to people that are in this genre. There are lots of people that are musicians. They play music and sing songs, but in the blues is all people, one stripe or another, one shade of blues or another. They’re all gated that way. So, it was a great networking event. The event itself did seem a little scattered. We went once before and it was way more organized, but that said, it was good for us. It kind of gave us a point of focus. Playing was great. You were playing in front of people who knew something about the blues and so the feedback you got just from the audience, I mean you could judge the scores. The actual stuff from the audience and other players was good because they knew what the hell they were talking about. They understood the music, and it was good. We showed up. We did quite well. I think I told you we made it to the semi-final stage. We made some connections to where we got enough to book a southern tour for next spring. We’re still working on it, but we met the people we’re gonna do it with. It’s gonna happen.