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L.A. supergroup alert: Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison debut Fistful of Mercy on KCRW

August 26, 2010 | 11:00 am

Fistful of Mercy on KCRW by NOAH ABRAMS

Fistful of Mercy is a new band with an intriguing pedigree, embodied by a trio of distinctive singer-songwriters: Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison. From the first moments of the band's debut performance Tuesday night at The Village studios in West Los Angeles, the sound could be unruly or tranquil, unveiling a modern, quirkier take on the Crosby, Stills and Nash model, colliding folk, blues, eccentric pop and gorgeous three-part vocal harmonies.

The eight-song performance for about 100 invited guests was hosted by KCRW, which is broadcasting the concert at 11:15 a.m. Thursday on “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” previewing material from the trio's new album, “As I Call You Down,” set for an Oct. 5 release on Harrison's Hot Records West label. The songs were agonized and joyous, impulsive and restrained, exploring themes that Harrison listed as “love, God . . .  music, peace.”

During much of the set, the trio sat with acoustic guitars, strumming jangly steel strings, with elegant slices of violin from Jessy Greene, who also appears on the album. Harrison moved to piano for the album's title song, as he, Harper and Arthur sang in warm harmony: “When I fall inside a hole I can't crawl out of / better give up my control as I call you down.”

The group then dove into some tough, agonized blues with “Father's Son,” a song inspired by Robert Petway's ancient “Catfish Blues,” harmonizing as Harper sliced away on an acoustic Weissenborn lap-slide guitar.

For the moment, Fistful of Mercy has yet to announce any tour plans, and remains a compelling side trip for the three artists: Harper already has another album completed with his band Relentless7, and Harrison's group thenewno2 just performed at this summer's Lollapalooza fest. Arthur is a post-modern folk-rocker who has known Harper for years, and they often spoke of collaborating one day; and Harper met Harrison only recently by chance at a local skate park. The new band wrote and recorded its debut suddenly over three long days.

Dhani Harrison playing piano NOAH ABRAMS

They were joined in the studio by the acclaimed rock drummer Jim Keltner, who has performed with a long list of classic rock artists, including Harrison's father, the late Beatle George Harrison. “I haven't seen him since my old man was around,” the younger Harrison said between songs, “so it was heavy sessions.”

During the final minutes of Tuesday's show, there was a Beatles-like pop swirl on “Things Go 'Round” and a raw, cascading pattern to the instrumental “30 Bones.” Harper ripped and slashed on electric lap-slide for “Restore Me,” unfurling a tense, shimmering sound of melody and feedback, blending into the cooing of their voices: “You want it all, but you got to forgive. . . .”

The night closed with the urgent jangle of “With Whom You Belong,” and sounded the most like classic Crosby, Stills and Nash as they harmonized on words that could easily describe the roots of this new trio:  “You find your way, to write your song / and come what may, I hope you find friends with whom you belong.”

Set list:

“In Vain or True”
“As I Call You Down”
“Father's Son”
“Fistful of Mercy”
“30 Bones”
“Restore Me”
“Things Go 'Round”
“With Whom You Belong”

A recording of the performance is streaming at KCRW.com.

-- Steve Appleford

Top photo (left to right): Dhani Harrison, Joseph Arthur, Jessy Greene (violin), Ben Harper. Credit: Noah Abrams / KCRW.

Bottom photo: Dhani Harrison. Credit: Noah Abrams / KCRW.

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