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That Indefinable Something

Chris Duarte brings a retro energy to rockin' blues and bluesy rock

It's the most predictable cliche in music writing: all blues-rock power trios -- especially if the frontman's from Texas -- must be compared to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Why doesn't every profile of an electric guitar player carry a comparison to T-Bone Walker? Many guitar players -- Texan and otherwise -- opt for the trio format's freedom over the fuller sound of horn sections, keyboards and supplemental guitars, taking the cocky gamble that one key performer, buoyed by a tight, minimalist rhythm section, can hold the spotlight and win an audience. Chris Duarte, the frontman for his own Texas power trio, takes this route, and as a result, is frequently referred to as "the next" (as if there could be such a thing) Stevie Ray Vaughan.

It's just not an especially apt comparison when it comes to Duarte. At 31, he's a little old to be an SRV clone. Vaughan's recording career had barely begun in 1979, when Duarte dropped out of school in San Antonio and moved to Austin. Certainly, Duarte was influenced by Vaughan during the master's reign over the Austin club scene. But a more appropriate comparison, if comparison be needed, is to say that Duarte brings to mind Johnny Winter, the godfather of the Texas power trio. Winter has never drawn a fine line between bluesy rock and rockin' blues, and neither does Duarte. Both Duarte's live shows and his debut CD, Texas Sugar/Strat Magik, have an indefinable something about them, a retro energy that harkens back to the time when "the Blues had a baby and they named it Rock 'n Roll" more than to any back-to-the-blues renaissance. Leland Rucker, managing editor of Blues Access magazine, described Duarte's Boulder, Colorado, show en route to Houston as "absolutely incredible for anyone that came up in the '60s. If they just would have done 'Gloria'...."

If only....
Any amplified combination of guitar, bass and drums coming out of Texas is going to have a blues influence, and the undeniable common ground between Winter, Vaughan and Duarte is three great versions of Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying." But the path home to the blues has been an unusual one for Duarte, perhaps the first Texas bluesman to come up out of the punk-rock ranks. There aren't many blues guitarists who cite having missed the Sex Pistols' once-in-a-lifetime concert in San Antonio as one of life's great disappointments, but Duarte maintains an unrepentant punker's pride at having seen the Runaways during his abbreviated upbringing in his hometown. "San Antonio is so dry," Duarte remembers. "It was such a metal town when I was growing up. There was also Doug Sahm, and a lot of good musicians like Augie Meyers that came out of the Cosmic Cowboys in the mid-'70s. They have a lot of good players, but most of them leave town."

Duarte's willingness to climb out on the limb as trio-frontman is reflected in his initial enthusiasm for music. "My brother started playing guitar, and I was constantly picking it up. In high school I was really small," he says. "I started doing it for attention and then found out I could pick up things faster than anyone around me." So, in the tradition of Alamo City musicians, Duarte left town. "I was only 16 when I moved to Austin," he remembers, "and I started playing around town in early '81. 1980 was just furious practicing. And a lot of asking questions. That's the main thing a musician has to do -- listen to people and for God's sake get a metronome."

After a few years around Austin, Duarte practiced the trio format behind R&B vocalist Junior Medlow. Alan "Dogman" Miller of Houston's Hightailers recalls seeing Duarte when the guitarist was still playing with Medlow's Bad Boys. "They'd stay away as far from R&B as they could until Junior came on," says Miller. "Chris would do an outrageous job of ripping off all the sax lines from Coltrane numbers on his guitar."

Duarte had proven an ability to play jazz, punk and blues, and good as that list looks on a resume, one of those three threatened his livelihood. "Chris Duarte, jazz guitarist," he says. "I could not get rid of that label. Jazz players just don't eat." Although he describes the current Chris Duarte Group as "musical freedom ... everybody plays off of each other in a jazz improvisational form," the jazz label led Duarte to flee Austin for New Hampshire, running from terminal categorization.

But after a two-year New England hiatus, Duarte moved back to Austin and reunited with bassist and friend John Jordan. A hectic touring schedule -- more than 300 gigs a year -- soon made Austin more of a mailbox than a home. After signing with Silvertone Records, Duarte and Jordan -- along with drummer Brannen Temple -- released Texas Sugar/Strat Magik in October. It's a CD that falls easily into the "promising first release" category -- at nine songs a little short, but definitely above-average blues-rock guitar fodder, boasting punk and rockabilly influences ranging from subliminal to overt. Despite Duarte's occasionally intriguing Buddy Holly-esque phrasing, the release turns out to be much more memorable for its guitar work than as a showcase for the frontman's vocals. As the opening chapter of a career library, it's a nice piece of work.

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