I first became aware of Brett Harris two summers ago, when I went to see Chapel Hill pop mastermind Chris Stamey play a Tuesday-evening acoustic show at West End Wine Bar on Franklin Street and Harris appeared as an unbilled opener. Between sets, Stamey spoke so highly of Harris' work that it seemed mandatory to check out his 2010 solo debut, Man of Few Words.
It was clear upon first listen what Stamey appreciated: Harris' skills as a tunesmith, arranger and vocalist instantly vaulted him into the top tier of Triangle pop musicians. In an interview several months later, Stamey elaborated a bit: "Brett did really interesting things on [Man of Few Words], I thought, harmonically. It wasn’t just the same diatonic; it wasn’t the same basic Crayola options." Indeed, from the punchy infectiousness of "So Easy" to the brooding cool vibe of "Drop the Needle" to the graceful confessionalism of "Unspoken" to the soaring melodic flights of "I Found Out," this was remarkably sophisticated stuff. Names such as Nilsson and Rundgren came to mind as comparative antecedents.
Three years later, Harris is overdue for a follow-up, but he's working on it. His posts on Facebook this past week included photos of horn players in action and sheet music being sketched out in pencil, encouraging signs of the big ideas he may have in store. It's been hard for him to find time to do his own music lately: Stamey ended up recruiting Harris not only for the Big Star's Third tribute shows that have taken place everywhere from Austin to London to Barcelona in the past couple of years, but also as a supporting musician with the reunited dB's, the influential North Carolina band fronted by Stamey and Peter Holsapple. (Harris travels to New York with the Big Star's Third crew at the end of the month for a June 30 show in Central Park featuring an impressive lineup of guest vocalists including Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile and Pete Yorn.)
All of which has provided Harris with invaluable experience, he acknowledges, but he seems increasingly motivated to get his own music back on the front burner. Earlier this year, he visited f/Stop Grooves Studio in Raleigh and offered up solo acoustic versions of a new song, "End of the Rope," and a cover of the Tomahawks' "Dear Mary" (rendered below on video, courtesy of Dan Schram and Gabe Nelson). Friday night, he'll be at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh opening for Jeanne Jolly (8 p.m., $12-$15); he'll be playing mostly solo, with steel player Whit Wright of American Aquarium sitting in on a couple of numbers.