Fresh Spin

Though noticeably older, Chris Duarte is often mentioned along with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang as part of a new generation of guitarists carrying the blues to a new generation of fans. In doing so, though, it's likely Duarte will continue to ruffle the feathers of so-called aficionados. And that, he explains, is the way it should be.

"You know, the blues purists are the ones I like to rub their hair the wrong way," Duarte says. "Blues is great, but I just don't see the point in standing there going, 'Remember how it was, man? It was great, back then.' Blues is changing. Blues is good. Hendrix changed it. It was changed by Prince, James Brown. It was changed through the years, and for blues to survive, it's got to change."

For his part, the Austin-based Duarte is putting a different spin on the music of his idols on his latest release, Tailspin Headwhack. Where his debut CD, Texas Sugar/ Strat Magik, was primarily a shuffle-based outing very much in the tradition of fellow Austinite Stevie Ray Vaughan, Headwhack largely reinvents Duarte's sound. In fact, only a few tunes ("Drivin' South," "Crazy" and "Cleopatra") immediately recall the blues-rock fusion of that first album. Elsewhere, Duarte -- always a tried-and-true live draw here in Houston -- has experimented freely with different rhythms and guitar tones. In the process, he's taken a major step toward establishing a uniquely individual approach. Indeed, he's already noticed a difference in how both fans and critics view his music.

"If people wanted to call me a Stevie Ray Vaughan clone or something like that, it never bothered me," he says, alluding to the somewhat suspicious public response generated by Strat Magik. "I was comfortable [enough] in my own musical abilities to know I wasn't a clone. But [the new] album has distanced me a little. And to tell you the truth, we've yet to see a bad review of the CD. There were plenty of them on the first one."

Duarte says his newfound interest in hip-hop and urban rhythms has a lot to do with this fresh direction: "We started using rhythm loops in the studio. We have a drum machine on the bandstand now, and it really injects more rhythmic dynamics. I've always been a rhythmic player, so I like exploring that field."

Perhaps the most surprising example of that new urbanized feel is found on Duarte's rendition of B.B. King's signature "The Thrill Is Gone." Anchored by a circular, hip-hop groove, the song has a decidedly funkier feel than the original. Meanwhile, Duarte's guitar fills are eerier than King's silky textures. Funkier rhythms also inform "Crimino," a track that has an especially gritty feel; "People Say," which mixes a bit of vintage Curtis Mayfield soul with solid Texas blues; and the title track, which fuses jazz with a get-up-and-dance tempo. Duarte credits the two producers on the project, David Z and Gordie Johnson, with helping him find his new path. Z, a former member of Prince's band, was involved with the project from the start; he's also produced artists from the BoDeans to Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Duarte particularly marveled at Z's technical abilities.

"David can literally play a studio," Duarte says. "He knows so many tricks and so many time-saving ways of doing things. It was just unbelievable how good he was and how fast he worked. He would aurally place things; he places them in different spots. It's really painting a picture, turning the music from aural to visual. He's very talented doing that."

Johnson, on the other hand, didn't come to the project with nearly as impressive a resume as Z. A member of the band Big Sugar, he was brought into the project only after a full version of the CD had been recorded and mixed by the former.

"I was a little apprehensive," Duarte admits. "[But] when we started working with him, we realized how good his ideas were and how easy he was to work with. It was so different because he really changed some of the songs up in a way [that] I liked."

In fact, the three Johnson-produced tunes on Headwhack -- "The Thrill Is Gone," "Cleopatra" and "Catch the Next Line" -- are all slated as singles. And ultimately, Duarte feels that two heads behind the boards were better than one.

"I think the album has a good contrast on it, because you've got those three real raw cuts [produced by Johnson], and you have the David Z cuts that are obviously a little more slick and polished," he says. "But still it's got the same amount of energy."

Chris Duarte performs Thursday, April 16, at Party on the Plaza, Jones Plaza. Show starts at 5 p.m. Free. Grand Street Cryers open. For info, call 230-1666.

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Alan Sculley