On any given week, you can walk into a nightclub in Sonoma County and hear a guitar player furiously replicating the same tired-and-true Albert King licks ingrained in the Clapton-helmed blues revivalist’s rudder.
And then there’s Volker Strifler.
Strifler, who was born in Heidelberg and moved to the U.S. when he was 22, isn’t so much a Xerox product of the British Invasion as his own one-man German invasion. Sure, he likes Albert King, but there’s some Mike Bloomfield and Peter Green in there, too, mixed at various times with folk forms, hard rock and jazz invention.
Strifler’s varied influences come to the forefront on his new album, Let the Music Rise, which is slightly more blues-rooted than his previous record, The Dance Goes On, where the occasional radio-friendly love song was known to dwell.
But while most of this new album follows some variation on the classic 1-4-5 progression, no songs sound phoned in from the weekly jam session. “Going to Brownsville” opens the album with a New Orleans street-band horn section and drums that clop in and out of tempo. “It’s been done several different ways,” Strifler tells me of the oft-covered Sleepy John Estes composition, “and I wanted to go after a more modern approach. I spent a lot of time on it just to get the right feel.”
Likewise, the early Fleetwood Mac tune “Jigsaw Puzzle Blues” in Strifler’s hands becomes a tipsy tête-à-tête between Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” and Springsteen’s “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” with clanging hubcaps, bass notes played on the tuba and a saloon piano plank-planking away.
But as usual, Strifler’s own songwriting is the standout. “Redemption” is a joyful burst of calypso horns, Los Lobos riffs, Buster Poindexter melodies and backup vocals—a sure-fire dance floor hit, despite Strifler’s rather somber lyrics. Initially, Strifler says, “I really wanted to get that West African highlife feel,” but the band fell into something entirely new, making for one of those happy accidents that works in the end.
The backing players on Let the Music Rise were hand-picked by Strifler and come in part from his old working band, with bassist Don Bassey and drummer Gary Silva; from his friends back in Germany, Claus Bubick and Stefan Bollack; and from his current group, with Steve Froberg, Ronnie Smith, Chip Roland, Carl Bowers and David Schrader.
And though he’s been able to open for heroes like Johnny Winter and B. B. King (“We exchanged a few words, and it’s a thrill just to be in the same room as him, let alone open for him”), Strifler’s still at his best in a small club—bending those strings, singing in that perfect rasp and letting the music rise.
The Volker Strifler Band play Saturday, June 16, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 8:30pm. $12–$15. 707.545.2343.