When a band opens up with a song called “I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time”, you normally become a little cautious. When that band has Ben fucking Harper in it, there’s nothing to worry about.
That is, at least, what everyone at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall discovered Thursday night. Harper’s newest project Fistful of Mercy, an acoustic rock trio with singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison (George’s son), has no business being as good as it was after less than a year in existence.
After the crowd frustratingly chattered over a melancholy opening set by Them Crooked Vultures/Queens of the Stone Age collaborator Alain Johannes, FoM came out to a huge ovation, and the love remained throughout the evening.
With help from As I Call You Down violinist Jessy Greene, the trio strummed through all nine tracks on its October debut album, and then some. And “then some,” of course, means lots of bonus material. FoM kept the show fresh with plenty of crowd-pleasers, including covers of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love”, and The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”. The band also threw in a new piece called “Scandalous” (sample lyric: “Scandalous / You’re so motherfuckin’ scandalous”).
The high point, for better or for worse, consisted of FoM playing a string of non-FoM songs. Halfway through the main set, upon finishing “Fistful of Mercy”, Arthur blurted out a request for a Harper song. Harper, a Southern California native, stalled by addressing the crowd: “How about some hostility for the San Francisco Giants?” After some extended screaming and a “Let’s go, Giants” chant, Harper, with his friends’ help, transitioned into his “Please Me Like You Want To”. His buddies traded the spotlight from here, with Arthur busting out his early single “In the Sun” and Harrison taking a seat at a grand piano for thenewno2 number “Another John Doe”.
While the performance was marked by plenty of impressive musical improvisation — several shining moments from Greene, a duel between Harrison and Arthur, and as expected, Harper’s lap slide guitar — the verbal improv did its part in making this a memorable show. All three members made cracks about the amount of weed in the air; someone apparently even threw a joint at Arthur. The band played a game of rock, paper, scissors, and joked about Harrison’s backstage skateboarding. Best of all, they were really proud of their Conan appearance — “Y’all see us on Conan last night?” quipped Arthur at one point, out of the blue. And introducing “Father’s Son”, Harrison said, “We did this song with Tom Morello last night and it sounded like ‘Killing in the Name of’. That wasn’t really our intention.”
Harrison, playing in San Francisco for the first time, showed some nerves; his eyes never fixated on the audience, and he had to restart “Another John Doe”. Still, he came through and was, needless to say, a crowd favorite.
None of what FoM did was more or less than what you’d expect. No theremin experiments, no heavy metal. The only surprise was how well these three synchronized all night. There’s no doubt these three are good friends and enjoy being on stage with each other. Fistful of Mercy is essentially just three dudes who happened to get together and jam, and now they have a solid album and a hell of a live show to boot. There’s just something so right about this.
I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time
In Vain or True
As I Call You Down
Buckets of Rain (Bob Dylan cover)
Fistful of Mercy
Please Me Like You Want To (Ben Harper)
In the Sun (Joseph Arthur)
Another John Doe (thenewno2 cover)
Things Go ‘Round
To Bring You My Love (PJ Harvey cover)
Pale Blue Eyes (The Velvet Underground cover)
With Whom You Belong