“Yes, this is a really personal record,” says Saratoga Springs blues man Mark Tolstrup of his new album Northstar, his first solo effort since the 2007 release of The Backroads of America. In the time since that resonator guitar driven collection of classics by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and The Beatles, Tolstrup has focused more and more on his own songwriting, finding an avenue informed by favorites like Son House and Bob Dylan, but filled with rich insights all his own. While on that path, the loss of both his father and brother, in quick succession, put Tolstrup in an introspective place, which is heavily reflected in his latest work.
The title track was, in fact, written to be sung at his father’s funeral. “I wasn’t even sure it was a song at first,” Tolstrup says, but it is. And how. “Which way do you turn when your Northstar is gone, and the needle stops pointing the way back to home,” he intones as the disc opens. “And there’s nothing to talk about, and there’s no one to blame, but nothing will ever be the same.”
Longtime fans will find all they need to love here, but they should also prepare for a dive into Tolstrup’s psyche. “Free Brother” is the sibling flipside to “Northstar.” “City in the Rain,” the collection’s initial germ, is a broken love song worthy of Randy Newman. And the bittersweet, sax-tinged “I Don’t Know” is a sharp-eyed, late-night look at romance and its consequences.
While Bessie’s Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” and Tolstrup’s own stompers “Hey Hey Baby” (with a full horn section) and “Milk and Honey” tip to the raw and raunchy, covers of Tom Waits’ “On the Nickel” and Albany songwriter Michael Eck’s “Dead Man’s Shirt” (reinterpreted in distinctly Mississippi hill country fashion) hew to Northstar’s familial themes.
Tolstrup recorded the project—which began its life as a simple “ten song demo”—at Chris Carey’s Millstone Studio in Ballston Spa. Much of it is virtually live, with a serious supporting cast including Carey, Rick and Sharon Bolton, James Gascoyne, Oona Grady, Dave Lambert, Jeannine Ouderkirk, Woody Strobeck and Jessica Wern.
“Working with Chris was a joy,” the singer, also known for his combos Streetcorner Holler and Brass & Blues, says. “It’s the best recording experience I’ve had.”
Wern, Tolstrup’s stepdaughter, drums throughout and adds heart-piercing vocals, while Grady’s fiddle lends a true Irish keen to “Nickel” and the instrumental “Requiem for Coyote.”
“Jessie,” he says of Wern’s work, “knows what to do with these songs. I’m not really rock and roll, I lean more towards a New Orleans sound. She’s a jazz drummer and she’s listened to me play for her whole life.”
Tolstrup’s guitar, electric on this outing, is still there, at the heart of everything, even if it bows to the mouth harps, horns and fiddles, as well as the tunes themselves.
“I didn’t have to get more of myself into the songs,” Tolstrup says. “I didn’t need to step forward, because I’m already here. Nobody else could have made this record.”
For more information, visit marktolstrup.com