Sensory Overload: Total Navajo

From the February 14, 2013 edition

Judging from the number of bilious comments it inspired, my most controversial review was a 417-word shrug about Columbus blues-rock power trio Mount Carmel in 2009. My indifference was based on my sense that they were all simmer and no sizzle, a living museum exhibit suffering from insufficient wattage. Their love for their genre of choice was apparent, as was their painstaking mastery of it. Their shows just felt more like lava cooling than volcanoes erupting, taxiing the runway forevermore without lifting off.

I’ve since come around on Mount Carmel; the group’s 2011 performance at Nelsonville Music Festival was an F-22 exploding from out the flames of Mt. Vesuvius. As for psych-blues at large? If you’re going to dig into those grooves, please come out with something colorful.

Enter Total Navajo, another power trio channeling Cream in campus-area clubs. I caught them Saturday at Rumba Café, where they were opening for longstanding Cincinnati roots rockers Buffalo Killers.

Guitarist Mitchell Rowland and bassist Jon Giacalone hail from Lionel the Jailbird, a Jefferson Airplane-ish combo that just went on hiatus. Jason Winner also drums in Indigo Wild, a derivative indie band (fetishes: Death Cab, Arcade Fire) that nonetheless released one eminently solid single and knows how to translate studio savvy to the stage.

Together, they’re approaching fuzzed-out classic rock with vigor and flair. Total Navajo’s members are not as preternaturally in sync as their forebears in Mount Carmel, but they make up for it with enthusiasm and lovely left turns.

Rambunctious soloing gave way to seventh-chord inflections that were funky without being corny. Later: ominous detuned “Iron Man” guitar groans, rumpled chord progressions, slide guitar capable of bending sound and mind. “Girl From Nowhere” was a cousin to The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” its high-pitched Egyptian melody bleeding into downward-spiraling open arpeggios. There were noise freakouts. With a single clanging chord, the bottom fell out entirely (by design) into a cymbal rush K-hole.

This was not a perfect show, and Total Navajo are by no means a perfect band. Rowland’s Ozzy-inspired bark, in particular, could use some more melodic awareness and some extra wind behind it. But they breathed life (and fire) into those old, dead pentatonic riffs of yesteryear.