Fistful Of Mercy Haunts Hollywood Forever
Sunday night found us trekking over to Hollywood to see the beyond sold-out Fistful Of Mercy show at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge. We parked among the grave sites and walked in the moonlight to join the extra-loooooong line waiting to get inside. And waiting … and waiting … so it’s a good thing people REALLY wanted to see this band, as it is not usual for L.A. people to hang out late, especially on school nights. Listening to people around us made it clear that these were BIG fans … some drove down after seeing F.O.M. play in Seattle the other night, and just had to catch them again. A whole slew of people would walk by with the “Got an extra ticket?” pitch, which no one did. After the wait stretched on and on (for no apparent good reason) I was amazed that everyone was still super polite and in high spirits – which I would attribute to the fact that they love this music, and that’s the kind of fans these musicians draw.
These musicians … Fistful Of Mercy is Joseph Arthur, Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison. The term “Supergroup” keeps being thrown around, which I’m not sure applies until you don’t have to explain to people that Dhani is George Harrison (Yes, the Beatle)’s son, Joseph Arthur sings that beautiful “Honey and The Moon” song from a bunch of years back (among many others, but that’s the one people seem to know), and Ben Harper is … well, Ben Harper. They are Musician’s Musicians all, and super, for sure … so … there you go!
The Masonic Lodge is a lovely old place, with red walls, a wood beamed ceiling, with dim chandeliers and candles casting shadows all over. Old movie one-sheets hang around (Hollywood, remember, even in a cemetery), and there is an overall spooky-in-a-good-way vibe. Another long line for the bathrooms had strangers making friends, discussing other shows they’ve seen (like the same one here the night before – I told you, FANS), holding each others’ places in line, one lady bouncing her two month old baby that HAD to hear Ben, and even she, standing for hours with her very well behaved infant, said, “The lines are totally worth it to see them in such a small venue”. Which (almost) everyone seemed to agree with, happily chatting, until one guy said, “There’s such a warm feeling here, isn’t there?” Yes, Sir. There was. Which I think comes from that elusive but crucial element of RESPECT. For the band, sure, but also for each other, since we shared that love of the music, and therefore, must all be cool.
Cool would aptly describe opening act, Alain Johannes. He has played with Eleven (founded with his late wife, Natasha Schneider), Chris Cornell, Queens Of The Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Desert Sessions, to name SOME. He took to the moody stage with his cigar box guitar, with its wholly original sound, and his deep, confident voice, and frankly, nearly stole the show. Each song was lushly arranged, and with the resonant sound of the Lodge, would build to an otherworldly sound that was hard to believe came from just one guy. The songs from his album Spark – a tribute to Natasha – particularly “Speechless”, “Make God Jealous”, and “Gentle Ghost”, were so lovely that I came directly home and ordered that thing. They also earned him a standing ovation from the same people that were previously impatiently wanting the main event to begin, saying “Who is this guy?” Well, now they know. Very impressive.
More waiting was finally rewarded with that main event, as Fistful Of Mercy walked through the crowd to take the stage, each guy (and gal, violinist Jessy Greene) taking his spot on a stool among a vast array of guitars. “Howdy”, said Joseph Arthur, giving the night a casual feel right from the get-go. They opened with “I Don’t Want To Waste Your Time” (to which one near me said, “Then you shouldn’t have made us wait for 3 hours from Doors open” – true enough), which shows off their harmonies, but gets a bit repetitive when they keep repeating the title over and over. They might want to open up with something a bit more up-tempo to rile up the up late audience, but then, most in the crowd would listen to them chant the phone book and be thrilled.
The banter and camaraderie between the guys is tangible, and sort of makes you feel like you’re on a couch watching them jam together in someone’s living room. Ben threw out a little Ghostbusters theme chorus, considering our surroundings, and the jokes and cracking up all further endeared them to the audience of true fans. “In Vain Or True” and the title track of their debut album “As I Call You Down” were next, and as lovely as they were, they seemed a little loose, or unsure, when it came time to end them, which surprised me, considering who we’re talking about.
Ben and Joe looked at Dhani for a beat, prompting him to ask “Why are you looking at me?” Joe replied, “Because you’re the Counter” … so Dhani counted down the 1,2,3 for the first cover of the evening, a spirited hoe-down of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain”, which elated the entire room. It was like a kick in the pants to the night, and had everyone happily bouncing in their chairs from beginning to (tight) end. After Joe (Cowboy-like) and Ben (Mountie) traded hats (somehow causing feedback – Loose Spirits?!) the sublimely gorgeous instrumental track from the album, “30 Bones” was next. It’s tied for my favorite, and clearly also had a fan in Alain Johannes, who was now sitting in front of me, nodding his head appreciatively throughout. The guitar talents of these guys is a wonder to behold, and swept you up and away, only to be jolted back to reality by the thunderous applause that met its end. Simply beautiful.
The tune that gave the band its name, “Fistful Of Mercy” followed that, and sounded a lot heavier than as recorded. Ben was BEATING on his signature Weissenborn, and as the guys harmonized, and the violin wove it all together in such a lovely fashion, it was no wonder they went for naming the band after it.
Joe then said, “I don’t know about these people but I’d like to hear a Ben Harper song right about now”, which freaked the crowd out, and started a little comedy routine between the guys, joking that they sounded like an old time-y country act, ala “Wanna play one with me?” “Why sure, I’d love to!”, like they didn’t already know they were going to. Then Joe cracked, “What’s the last thing you want to hear after sleeping with Willie Nelson?” “I’m not Willie Nelson.” Once the laughs died down, Ben started the opening notes of his classic, “Please Me Like You Want To”. Love. It. Dhani and Joe might need to practice that one a little more, as their guitar parts were somewhat scattered, but overall, Wow.
Also WOW (as exclaimed by the guy behind me) was Ben’s a cappella intro to “Restore Me”. Like many of their songs, its lyrics feature references to ghosts and death, making it all the more fitting to be played in a building smack in the middle of tombstones. As slow and plaintive as this one is, the end featured a ROCKOUT, with hands flying over guitars so fast they blurred. The crowd leapt to its collective feet, clapping their heads off, until they went back to the slow, gentle part and finished the mind blow. Which rewarded them with another well-deserved Standing O.
Joseph took the spotlight next with his beautiful song, “In The Sun”, which features the chorus, “May God’s Love Be With You …” and had these brethren singing together like they have all their lives. Really, really moving, to where I’ll admit to a lump in my throat from just listening. Phew.
Then Dhani took the lead with a song from his other band, Thenewno2, called, “Another John Doe”. He switched to the piano for this one, and it was haunting (you can’t get away from the graveyard references at this show, at this place, sorry!) and really showed the talents that led these three to find each other and unite as a trio.
After a little skull tossing (you had to be there), Joe switched to a little drum set, and they played “Things Go ‘Round” next. This is my least favorite one on the album – I feel like the harmonies are too high and it bugs me – but I liked it much better live. But not nearly as much as my other tied-for-favorite – and everyone else’s too, as nuts as they went for just the opening notes – “My Father’s Son”. It’s a complete barn-burner, and they completely threw it DOWN. BadASS style. (They played it last week on Conan, with guest friend, Tom Morello, and you need to take a break now and just GET IT here.) Another, wilder, standing ovation, and that was it for the regular set, and the guys walked back through the tripping out happy audience to await their encore.
And await … so long that the clap-along died down and astoundingly, I saw three people actually asleep around me. They finally returned, and when the noise died down, Ben thanked his long-time mentor, Bernie Larsen, who was down front, and cited him as one of the most influential people on his music, after his own family. Cool. They began the encore portion with PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love”. Which brought them MY love, as I adore PJ, and have missed her lately. They did it bluesy jam extended style, which I adored, but might have been too late on a Sunday, particularly for the head in her lap asleep girl in front of me. (Her loss).
Alain Johannes returned to join them (“By the end of the tour, hopefully he’ll be IN the band” – Joseph Arthur) for The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”. Ben played bass on this one, Jessy had a shining moment with a violin solo, and Alain again impressed with his textured guitar solo. Complete symbiosis was attained with this one, which made it the perfect lead-in to the night’s last song, “With Whom You Belong”.
As Joe said to start it off, this song is about friendship, community, and love, and all of that is plain and clear, from the glances they all exchange while playing it, to the lyrics that exemplify those qualities:
Make sure you stay
When you find love in your heart
And as it lights up your way
Don’t let your friends fall apart
I said I hope you find friends with whom you belong
I said I hope you find friends with whom you belong
People shared their own glances, singing along, feeling special to be there, among friends of their own, and in the presence of Fistful Of Mercy, who reflected every word of what they said was the last song they wrote in their 3 Day (!) writing/recording marathon for their first album together.
Everyone in the band (and in life) has their own stuff going on, and their own ways of loving and being. It’s a tribute to the quality of the band members themselves as humans, and of course, their music, that they can come together to be more than the sum of their parts. But more importantly, that they, and subsequently, WE, can lift each other up to that abstract but tangible feeling of belonging together, in a moment.
*Photos by PaulGronner.com