Volker Strifler surveys the Nutty Irishman, a faintly lit, clamorous lounge on the industrial side of Santa Rosa, before sliding with me into one of its well-worn booths and sweeping some leftover crumbs from the vinyl table covering. He flips open a menu with all the dry routine of a daily regular, glances at it for a moment and puts it down. “I don’t know why I even look at this thing,” he says. “I have it memorized by now.”
In addition to being a regular at this dark haunt, Strifler is a triple-threat guitarist, singer and songwriter who has just released one of the most richly satisfying blues albums in years, the highly acclaimed Dance Goes On. The Volker Strifler band perform Feb. 10 at the Last Day Saloon.
Instantly impressive from start to finish, the album has a polished sheen that remains rooted in the same well-worn soul that makes places like the Nutty Irishman tick. Strifler reclines in casual jeans and a sweater to talk about his new album, and around the restaurant relics of the past abound: wood paneling, bird’s-eye photos, mesh hats atop grizzled faces.
“I have a lot of respect for things that over time get lost,” he says, harking back to pioneers like Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. “I really respect what these guys did with what they had to work with, considering a lot of the technology that’s here now. Every time something gets invented, there’s something gained–but there’s also something lost.”
Through his refusal to succumb (“Be creative with the technology, don’t let the technology create you,” is how he puts it), The Dance Goes On is a pristinely organic listening experience. But it’s Strifler’s songwriting that elevates his sound. These are expertly crafted songs that achieve the near-impossible feat of not only creeping into the brain but under the skin, borrowing from every decade, not just the classic blues era of the 1940s.
“It’s certainly worth preserving,” Strifler notes of the traditional style that he was raised on. “But if you limit yourself to imitation, you’re not really bringing much progress to the music. I don’t think you’re really keeping it alive, you’re just painting a nice picture of it. It is important to keep developing the music.”
A good example of this is “On a Day Like Today,” a tune that starts out with a finger-plucked intro and a low, guttural lyric about surrender–basic blues stuff. Two minutes later, the drums kick in, the horns and Hammond B-3 organ are blaring, and Strifler works over his guitar like an amphetamine-addled extra from Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla sessions. Even hard-line traditionalists would admit that it kicks at least a little bit of ass.
Strifler, now 44 and a permanent resident of the United States, spent his childhood in Heidelberg, Germany. He didn’t start playing music until he sold his motorcycle and bought a guitar at the age of 17, after he and two friends, Claus and Stefan, discovered that being in a band led to girls. They played a lot of rock and roll (“UFO, Scorpions, the Sex Pistols, whatever was happening”) until an American ex-G.I. who married a German woman hired them as a backup band for American blues songs.
“He introduced us to that particular style,” Strifler recalls, “and it immediately stuck.”
When he turned 22, Strifler moved across the Atlantic, leaving his friends behind–and for the last two decades he’s continued to play with them almost every year, airfare be damned. “There just was that connection that’s really hard to find,” he says of his transcontinental allegiance. “I had a really hard time finding the same thing here, that same connection.”
Strifler breaks into a smile; his food arrives. “This is their idea of a salad,” he asides, motioning to his plate of iceberg lettuce tossed with fried potatoes and blanketed with strips of steak. He digs in and keeps talking.
“I really, really wanted to have a band here that would play the music,” he stresses. “It took me a while to decide on who to ask, and I got lucky–everybody I asked said yes.” It doesn’t hurt that Strifler, who has long been a member of the Ford Blues Band, supporting brothers Robben, Pat and Mark Ford onstage and in the studio. He had more than a few friends to ask.
And indeed, with contributions from his old childhood pals Claus and Stefan, the band for The Dance Goes On is top-notch. Strifler’s first-round draft picks include drummer Gary Silva (on loan from Charlie Musselwhite), David Shrader and Carl Bowers on horn, local veteran Don Bassey on bass, and Chip Roland (whom Strifler calls “the heart and soul of things”) on organ and piano.
Witness the album’s title track, where a single-chord ambience supports Strifler’s spectral snapshot of a preacher’s counsel, a devil’s temptation and a flattened lizard in the hot sun. As to its film noir shadings, Strifler nods. “I love that style of filmmaking, and I love that style of music. Anything from the ’60s junky jazz to the new Tom Waits stuff.”
Threaded throughout the rollicking blues tumble of “Angel,” the Willie Dixon-penned “Evil”–for which Strifler wrote an updated lyric about Iraq–and the Kenny Burrell-flavored soul-jazz instrumental “Shuffelupagus” is a passionate drive, peppered with stunning technique. “I don’t want to limit myself to just constructing blues songs or trying to stay within that idiom,” Strifler says, “and I don’t have a set plan.”
“It’s more like, I have an idea, and I try to go with it,” he adds. “I try not to let myself be limited by, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, because that’s not the way B. B. would have done it.’ I just let it go, and hopefully good things come out.”
The Volker Strifler Band perform on Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth St, Santa Rosa. 10pm. $8-$10. 707.545.2343.