Ben Harper’s latest project, Fistful of Mercy, a band that includes Dhani Harrison (George Harrison’s son) and Joseph Arthur, gave its first public performance at the West Seattle Easy Street Records Thursday night. The seven-song, 40-minute set was a mixed bag of folk and blues with most of the music featuring three-part harmonies and split lead vocal duties between the trio.
The atmosphere was a mixed bag of the odd (the record store setting) and what was to be expected (a very, very crowded venue). I figured the store would be packed, but it was almost uncomfortably crowded by the time I arrived, which was about 45 minutes before the set started. I ended up posting myself way in the back by the Country section where I couldn’t see a thing, but it didn’t bother me too much since I’ve been to dozens of club shows where I couldn’t see squat and I was there to listen to the music not watch the musicians. However, what did bug me were the annoying Ben Harper fans nearby. Since Easy Street West Seattle sells beer, the three trucker hat clad guys to my right pounded cold Rainiers and talked loudly to one another despite my steely glances throughout the set. Every time Ben Harper started singing they would hoot and holler, exchange high fives and continue to have themselves a brotacular time. Combining the brodown with the record store venue made for quite a unique way to experience live music.
My gripe about my proximity to douchebaggery aside, the music was pretty solid for a first time public performance (they trio has done a few live radio sets). The instrumentation was relatively sparse. Guitar, bass, violin (the group was joined by a violinist) and piano were the weapons of choice with a kickdrum making an appearance for only a few songs. Almost every song was acoustic and the music carried a big campfire rock feel akin to what’s trending right now in Seattle’s music scene with bands like the Moondoggies and others. Perhaps that’s why Fistful of Mercy chose Seattle for its public debut.
Lyrically there didn’t seem to be too much heavy happening. Sample lyrics include lines like: “Is my love for you insane or true?” “When I fall inside a hole that I can’t crawl out, better give up my control as I call you down” and “ “Baby It’s very soft inside of a fistful of mercy. Maybe it comes from where we are, the land of the thirsty.” Those excerpts are from three different songs.
As I mentioned, most of the songs were acoustic and several were without drums, but when the band plugged in it was clear each member wanted the group to get its collective groove on. One song, which Harper said was about friendship (see, not too complex with the lyricism), featured Harrison on piano singing over a bouncy piano melody while Harper played bass and Arthur was on the drum. Another was a hillbilly blues romp that could’ve become a clapalong if the crowd knew the material. It was the most upbeat song of the lot but it definitely wasn’t the most engaging.
The most engaging songs were the ones where Harper broke out his slide and was able to let loose. He’s a much better guitarist than a singer and it was a shame that his skills weren’t exploited more. One particularly sleepy number immediately got my attention near its end when Harper’s crunchy and deep slide guitar hit me like a brick across the face. Unfortunately these jarring and attention-grabbing moments were few and far between. Hopefully there will be more moments like these when the band releases its debut album Oct. 5 otherwise the bros may revolt.