Power Surge

Comeback records usually fall into one of two categories: those released after the artist has issued several clunkers in a row, or those released after the artist has been absent from the recording studio for years, typically because of the all-too-frequent "personal turmoil." Singer and guitarist Chris Duarte, who turns 38 on February 16, falls into the latter category.

Success, or at least ample praise, came early to Duarte. He earned props among his peers as a young guitarist on the Austin scene; his early promise was seemingly realized in his first album, Texas Sugar Strat Magik, which Silvertone released in 1994. The comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix were immediate -- and nonstop. The album went on to sell a couple hundred thousand copies; not bad for a debut.

Three years later Duarte's second album, Tailspin Headwhack, was less commercially successful, perhaps because he dared to spice his hard-edged blues-rock with R&B, funk and fusion flavors. The result was a solid recording, with some danceable tracks, but fans of Duarte's balls-to-the-wall style weren't enamored with it. "The second one I think I got a little bit too self-indulgent," Duarte says. "We went and got a big-time producer [David Z.], and you know it just kind of got a little slick. At least that's what my fans think. Personally, I like the second album still."

Shortly after Tailspin's release, Duarte went into his own personal tailspin. His marriage ended in divorce. Silvertone dropped him. Band members and staff quit. And worst of all, he sank into a heroin addiction. "It's so easy with drugs, especially if it's a drug that you like," Duarte says. "It just takes you. Then when you're really hooked and you just like the feeling, there's not a whole lot you can do. It's like when you think of Robert Downey Jr.: He's got literally everything going for him … but still, he just likes drugs so much, he's willing to waste everything for it. That's how I was. Probably not to his extreme, but enough to just about throw everything away that I had."

As Duarte started to hit bottom, his future wife gave him an ultimatum: Either the drugs went or she did. Duarte opted to keep the girlfriend, whom he credits with helping him kick his addiction. "I found somebody like a life preserver in this huge ocean," he says. "She just righted my equilibrium and got me looking straight and got me to … face the realities that are life. She was just not going to play the codependent role."

Once clean, Duarte started piecing his career back together and eventually inked a deal with Zoë, a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based Rounder Records. When Duarte finally returned to the studio last year to record his "comeback," he went back to basics. The slickness that had emerged on Tailspin was gone. Instead, Duarte brought in his trio and went straight for the jugular. As a result, Love Is Greater Than Me is filled with enough shredding to keep any guitar freak happy. As for subtlety, you'll find more on a UPN sitcom.

"What I wanted to do was turn around and give [my fans] something raw," Duarte says. "Give them something like they see live, because … they like that edge, that emotional edge. That's where I was going. That's how my shows are, and that's how I like to play. That's how all my idols that I love -- I mean [John] Coltrane, all the guys from Weather Report, they just reach out and grab you by the throat and shake you. But in a way, for me, it strokes my cortex and it moves me emotionally. When somebody grabs me, it moves me emotionally. That's what I'm looking for, even if it's a soft, tender ballad."

While some think the alternative movement killed the classic-rock-influenced power trio, Love Is Greater Than Me suggests otherwise. These are blues-influenced sounds as filtered through a lens tinted by '60s and '70s rock. Duarte does pay tribute to Kurt Cobain, whom he calls "a great songwriter," with "Metaphor Song," an Eastern-sounding tune that appears twice on Love Is Greater: as a noisy, electric version and as a haunting unplugged interpretation. But Duarte spends most of his time paying homage to more traditional rock-guitar heroes. One track sounds like something Hendrix could have penned, while another, "Azul Ezell," echoes the Latin jazz-rock of Carlos Santana. Overall, the album displays a great deal of versatility; Duarte mines the styles of both Vaughan brothers and even borrows a bit from Howlin' Wolf. Paradoxically, Duarte makes no effort to mimic his favorite guitarist, jazz-rock pioneer John McLaughlin.

"I like him so much because of the way he's never limiting himself musically," Duarte says. "I've heard him play all different kinds of music, and he's always looking for a different way to go from point A to point B, and I like that in a musician. I am always exploring, always looking for things….I can hear in his playing he's always striving to get better, and that's what I strive for, too."

Known more for his rock chops, Duarte's jazz roots also run deep. He's played in jazz bands and says he may even have such an album in him. At the moment, though, Duarte is promoting Love Is Greater, which has been well received but hasn't sold like his previous efforts. He says that's owing to several factors: the long layoff between recordings, the fact that he insisted Zoë release the CD on short notice, and that Rounder is a smaller label with fewer resources. As a result, Duarte has lowered his sales expectations to about 50,000 copies. The folks at Rounder will be happy to sell 20,000. "Personally, for me, that's a failure," Duarte says. "But I'm already more than half the way there. I'm looking good in their eyes."

Duarte plans to release another album in the next year or so, but he has a more immediate goal: to establish his own personal voice on the guitar. "I think what every musician strives for is their own voice amongst all these other voices singing, because you want that recognition, whether it be your style or tone," says Duarte. "But I want it to be my phrasing, my style and my tone, all of them."

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Paul J. MacArthur