BY JONATHAN LEVITT
It was a sad day when the latest cd and accompanying press release from Slowburn Records arrived in my mailbox here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In it, label doyen Eric Johnson explains that this is to be the final release of new music from the label, and that he’ll be focusing his efforts on archival releases, as he moves on to a new stage in his life. Slowburn, for those not in the know is the label that brought the reformed Black Sun Ensemble’s music to a wider audience, as well as projects from Sundarata, and the mighty Sun Zoom Spark. If there was ever a label in Tucson, free from the Gelb-axis of power, that typified a completely open space where artists could create to their hearts content then Slowburn was it. Over the years, Eric Johnson in association with an assorted cast of characters from the Tucson music scene managed to push musical boundaries and keep Tucson just weird enough to always wonder what new fascinating project lay right around the corner.
Alas we come to Number Three Combo’s Resurfacing record with its killer cover drawn by Chicago artist, Ben Johnston. Eric Johnson has never shied away from his love of Arabic influenced rock, cue up Black Sun Ensemble’s numerous releases, or maybe it’s the Kashmir effect (speaking of Zeppelin we’ll get to that later!)
“The Diamond Mine” is a cryptic number that has numerous intricate layers interweaving with each other. It’s a real tour-de-force that displays a myriad of influences that have propelled Johnson and crew forward. Here on exhibit is the fascinating amalgam of Black Sun Ensemble and Jethro Tull. On this track, Joe E. Furno (Inferno) turns in some stellar flute playing and as always Carl Hall mesmerizes with his hand drums and assorted percussive elements. If there’s a downside to the song it’s the extremely cold production that makes it feel a tad distant. Thankfully the song is powerful enough to rise above such sonic limitations.
“Killing Time” is a blistering number that shows off Eric Johnson’s move into being a much more confident singer. I had to do a double take when I heard a few measures of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” thrown into the mix. Indeed, this song is a showcase of Johnson’s earliest musical influences, from Zeppelin, to a smidgen of Deep Purple and a healthy dose of Jethro Tull.
“Friends” is the closest the combo has come to making a commercial radio friendly tune. Part Tom Petty, part Alejandro Escovedo, the track shows a fascinating foray into a type of music the band have never attempted and show that they could easily have turned their focus that direction and maybe even one day appeared on Austin City Limits.
The band blow things wide open with the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well Part 1” and “Oh Well Part 2”. This is a masterclass on how to cover a song. Fresh, nuanced and lovingly rendered the band shine here in a total shocker, that truly blew me away.
“Fog and Steam” feels like a reworking of the Cesare’s Dog classic “Shucks for Johnny G”, funky and tight, the song is another head turner that shows how truly diverse and talented Number Three Combo is.
This band out of all the one’s Eric Johnson has been associated with has probably given him the widest berth for his myriad influences to play, react and collide with one another.
Resurfacing is a fascinating record that to be honest works best when the band forgo the mystical myrrh infused numbers and let their rock side shine through. This is hard for me to write because those middle eastern tinged numbers are what attracted me to the band in the first place. To be honest though and I think this is the secret to the title, here the band are “resurfacing” what the band are capable of as they venture into uncharted waters. Sadly, since this is the end of the road we’ll never know where those uncharted waters could have led. Show some love and get a copy of this album while you can, it’s definitely an amazing journey and worth every penny.
DOWNLOAD: “Oh Well Pt.1” “Oh Well Pt.2” “The Diamond Mine” “Killing Time” “Friends” “Fog and Steam”