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The power of three

Fistful of Mercy puts the 'super' in supergroup

From left: Ben Harper, Dhani Harrison, and Joseph Arthur wrote and recorded their debut album as Fistful of Mercy, 'As I Call You Down,' in three days. From left: Ben Harper, Dhani Harrison, and Joseph Arthur wrote and recorded their debut album as Fistful of Mercy, "As I Call You Down," in three days.
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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The first time Joseph Arthur heard a playback of one of the songs by his new group Fistful of Mercy, he was taken aback.

“I heard the harmonies come back and I felt like, ‘Wow, this is special, this is just beyond the sum of its parts,’ ’’ he says on the phone from Los Angeles.

Considering the parts are the well-regarded singer-songwriter himself, folk-soul rocker Ben Harper, and Dhani Harrison, son of the late George Harrison, and that the trio wrote and recorded its debut, “As I Call You Down,’’ in three days, that assessment was happy surprise.

Especially since Arthur and Harrison were total strangers, meeting for the first time in the studio through mutual friend Harper. The trio play a sold-out show at the Somerville Theatre this Thursday.

“He was actually there first and Ben was late, so me and Dhani were hanging out for the first hour messing around with mandolins and acoustic guitars and I was like ‘I guess we better start trying to write some songs,’ ’’ he recalls with a laugh. “Dhani thought that the songs might be already written, and he was just going to come in and sing on my record or something.’’

Instead the trio started from scratch, writing three songs a day — “Brill Building-style,’’ says Arthur — and searching for a perfect vocal blend. “All three of us have a wide range, all three of us can sing comfortably in falsetto and can go low. And we can all play everything so it just fell into place.’’

“The weird thing about working in a recording studio is it bends time,’’ says Arthur of the compressed schedule. “They say they haven’t invented time travel yet, but they really have. It’s called a recording studio. When I think back on that session it doesn’t seem like three days, it seems like it was a month.’’

The result is a record that exudes a pleasant airiness as the singers roam from bluesy back roads (“Father’s Son’’) to folksy back porches (the title track) to gentle, sun-soaked beach pop (“I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time’’) with a few psychedelic finishing touches. The sound has drawn comparisons to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the Beach Boys, and both groups to which Harrison’s father belonged — the Beatles and the Traveling Wilburys.

Arthur’s heard them all and quotes the late, great comedian Bill Hicks in response. “There was this interview he gave where he said ‘I’m inspired by the idea of Lenny Bruce.’ And I always thought that’s so cool because I understand that. I have a lot of respect for Crosby, Stills and Nash, but I haven’t really explored their music too much, so it’s more like we were inspired by the idea of Crosby, Stills and Nash.’’

The original thinking was that the group would do an acoustic album and put it out on the Internet, but Harrison wanted to put drums on the record and knew just the man for the job.

“We were going to take turns playing drums on some stuff and finally Dhani was like, ‘Maybe I should just call Jim Keltner.’ And we were like, ‘Um, yeah, I guess that would be good,’ ’’ says Arthur with a chuckle of the ability to simply ask the legendary drummer who has played on hundreds of records with everyone from Eric Clapton to Barbra Streisand to the Wilburys to sit in. “Being in the studio with Jim is like a gift from God. Not just because of the way he plays, but hanging out with the guy and listening to his stories, it’s just incredible.’’

In addition to calling old family friend Keltner, Arthur says Harrison was a real driving force in the studio, which is interesting since Fistful of Mercy will be many listeners’ first introduction to him as a musician. “Dhani is fierce, he’s a big leader,’’ says Arthur. Since he and Harper are used to directing their own bands, he says, he’s enjoyed the give-and-take dynamic of the group. “We all take turns driving and that’s what’s great about it.’’

That democracy will extend to their live shows as well, as the trio plans to perform one solo song apiece and a few covers in addition to the album. “That’s the funniest thing about this whole week,’’ says Arthur of band rehearsals. “Getting enough songs to tour on, that’s a problem that neither Ben nor I have had in a long time.’’ He expects that by the time they reach the Somerville Theatre they’ll have a few more originals to debut, since the album only has nine tracks.

Arthur, Harper, and Harrison are so jazzed by the project that fans can expect to hear more from Fistful of Mercy in the future. “We’re all going to release solo stuff maybe in the spring,’’ he says. “But we’re already writing for the next record. It will be interesting to see what it’s like with a lot time. It’s going to be totally different. Hopefully, it makes for something even more powerful.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.