LIVE: Mark Tolstrup and Jill Burnham @ The Strand Theatre, 07/31/2022

I went out Sunday night, July 31st to see Mark and Jill at The Strand Theater in Hudson Falls three days after they opened for Shemekia Copeland at Music Haven in Schenectady, fundamentally to see if their excellent performance in Central Park had been an anomaly. It wasn’t. 

In my more than 50 years of reviewing blues in this area, I find Mark and Jill coming closest as any regionally based act I’ve seen in having the talent to win The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis. 

In the ’90s and early 2000s I tried to bring New York’s Capital Region up to being a contender in the big ranks of markets like Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis as a center for blues with the Northeast Blues Society. That brass ring remained elusively out of reach even when we sent acts as good as Albert Cummings and Tas Cru down to the IBC. Mark and Jill have represented our area twice at the IBC, the second time coming within one vote of making the semi-finals. 

As a frequent judge of this Beale St. event, I’ve found that many of the judges in the contest have a southern delta bias. Not much we can do about that here in New York, although Jill is originally from Texas. The judges in general have an affinity for the traditional styles, especially in the solo duo category. Mark and Jill’s material covers such seminal artists as Memphis Minnie, Elmore James, and Blind Willie Johnson.  

One of the stated criteria in the contest is for original material. The trick of writing new songs that fit into a style that was established a century ago is to concentrate on universal themes without references that tie any specific song to a current time. Mark and Jill have a growing cadre of such songs, none of which lament today’s obsession with cell phones, the pandemic, or rush hour traffic. 

 

In concert, Mark talked about how Jill claimed not to be a songwriter, but the two of them have worked on finding tag lines like “Turn My Bed Down,” “That’s My Heavy” and “Don’t Let Go” that evolved into whole songs. The tags are universal and fit comfortably with guitar picking lines that sound like they were originated at Saturday night fish fries in Bentonia, Mississippi. 

“I have electric guitars that won’t talk to me,” said Mark. He brought three acoustic guitars on stage Sunday night, but saved a new National Resonator, number two out of 100, for the 16th number out of 17 he and Jill performed in an hour and a half. He’s got a 1932 National that’s being repaired. “If I don’t play them all, they get mad at me” he quipped. Using a glass slide on that resonator, he took us to heaven on Blind Willie Johson’s “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” written in 1928. 

Mark Tolstrup has long established creds having played Caffe Lena more than 40 times. Jill Burnam is the new kid on the block who is coming up to speed fast. She’s just left a position as backup singer for A Pink Floyd cover band called Dark Sarcasm to concentrate her energies on the duo. The progress she’s made in her vocal delivery since they recorded Mark & Jill Sing The Blues at Caffe Lena in January, 2020, is dramatic. She sells a song and is the perfect foil for Mark’s picking that cries out legacy with a capital L. 

The Blues Foundation is struggling with the IBC attracting half the more than 200 entries they had pre-pandemic. If the Capital Region Blues Network is smart enough to send Mark and Jill down to Memphis again in 2023, they may just pull off a win that justifies all the work Mark Tolstrup has put into educating this market to the real deal blues.

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