Readers who play guitar, and want to hear some acoustic playing that will result in either practicing harder—or wanting to give up entirely—will enjoy Across the River, the latest from Don Strandberg. The 10-song album takes its cues from the people and places in the heart of the country and its main artery, the Mississippi River. The music here is instrumental acoustic guitar, bass, harp, and percussion; all of it played, arranged, and recorded by Strandberg. Some of the connections to the river theme are obvious, as he takes on standards like “Cry Me a River” as well as New Orleans chestnuts like “House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.” From the outset, the music here is crisp and tight, with the home recording sounding like a well-honed band on many of the more elaborate songs, and Strandberg delivers a clinic in guitar technique on track after track.
For those who are familiar with Strandberg’s past releases, often featuring complex finger-picking, open tuning, and single-track recording, the sound here goes for more of a “combo” feel than the finger-picked exercises, but Strandberg’s virtuostic skill isn’t left on a shelf. “St James” opens and it is basically a full (drummer-less) band, which features a nifty rhythm guitar hook and conversations between Strandberg’s lyrically picked steel-string melody lines and his alternating slide guitar statements. A lot is going on, and “Who Dat,” the next tune, revisits largely the same melody, key, and tempo to good effect. “Cry Me a River” gets a treatment that lets it keep its blues pedigree, while laying in some breaths of jazzy air on the bridges.
The disc starts to up the stakes on the second half. On “Lah Di Dah,” a Strandberg original, the melody is arresting and played on acoustic slide guitar, and the slide solos are exquisite. Next up is a version of “House of the Rising Sun” that includes an inventive arrangement, plus another spot where Strandberg shines in solos on acoustic blues and bottleneck, complementing each other nicely. Then, a surprise: an absolutely drop-dead adaptation of “On the Road Again,” the irrepressible 1968 Canned Heat boogie. Here, the bass line lurks in background and the drone is heard, while Strandberg dives into the echo and carves out line after line of bluesy guitar, often mimicking vocal inflections from the classic single (by Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, before he became one of the early members of the 27 club). Yeah, it’s a highlight.
Another strong Strandberg original, in the vein of river music, is “Hoodoo Dream.” Harp is heard over two rapidly picked guitars, the harmonics of the guitars ringing like yet another instrument. No lead figure on this one, which doesn’t need one as it tells its story with harp just fine. The disc wraps with yet another original, as “Across the River” is a country shuffle with Chet Atkins DNA and just enough jug band and blues flavor to round out this eclectic group of guitar showcases perfectly.