ROMP & Circumstance

By Sean Claes

 

 


* * * * *

 


Chris Duarte is indeed a legend in the music industry. He has been playing music for 25 years and seems poised to take that next step with the August release of Romp. His voice has never sounded sweeter and his guitar work is in top condition. It isn't often someone can sit in a small bar and witness musician onstage actually melding with their instrument. There were points at the May 2, 2003 show at the Triple Crown in San Marcos where I wasn't sure who was in control, the 1963 Stratocaster worn from years of playing, or Duarte - the stellar performer. I call Duarte a performer because a show by Chris Duarte is a performance. It is not just a man with a guitar on stage. It's a wild being thrashing around making sweet love to six strings and playing loud passionate original music. Some nights he recites Shakespeare. Some nights he can go off on 20-minute guitar solos. Some nights both, but it's always a new experience. It is difficult to categorize Duarte's music - it is equal parts blues, rock, jazz and classical. A listener could easily place him in the "Texas Blues/Shuffle" category on the strength of Duarte's 1994 release "Texas Sugar/Strat Magik". Yet, in 1997, with the release of "Tailspin Headwhack", Duarte delved deeper into the jazzy-funk rock sound. With 2001's "Love Is Greater Than Me" he added a little classical guitar sound to the fold. Hours before the amazing show at The Triple Crown, I had a chance to sit down with Duarte in his south Austin home. We talked about his past, the present state of guitarists in the world, and the future of The Chris Duarte Group - complete with a new album, titled "Romp", which was released in August of 2003.

 

 

 

 

 


* * * * *

The music bug bit Duarte at a young age, when he was at home in San Antonio, Texas watching the television. "I saw "Fiddler on the Roof" on TV in the early 70s. That opening scene with the silhouetted fiddler - it was that moment when I knew I wanted to play music," Duarte said. "The school only offered flute, but it was at that moment, seven years old, that the seed was planted." Later his brother would get a guitar and Duarte would spend his time learning it. When he was 16, in December 1979, his family lost their house in San Antonio and he decided to move in with a friend in Austin and has lived there ever since. The first band he joined was a jazz band by the name of Main Street. "I couldn't play jazz to save my life, but I could memorize chord charts," Duarte said. "I memorized forty songs. The first paying gig I had was the Zilker Park Clubhouse. I was handed a $32 check." Soon enough he joined another band, a touring band. "Bobby Mack and Night Train was the first band I was in that would leave town. Really a monstrous occasion, the first time you leave the state," he said. "My first gig out of state was Bay St. Louis, Missouri. Once you play out of state, you can tell people you're 'traveling around.' Ah, the innocence of a young musician."

 

* * * * *

Fast Forward about 25 years and Chris Duarte is an amazing accomplished guitarist that has made a wonderful niche for himself. Of course, the many ups in those years have not been without their downs. For more than half, Duarte abused drugs. Heroin being his drug of choice. "I was a heroin addict for twelve years, hard-core for seven of them. I wouldn't use when I was on the road, but as soon as I got back to Austin, I'd start back up," he said. Much like his life to date, he relied on himself to pick up and move on. "I went through Narcotics Anonymous and stuff like that. Treatment centers didn't work and I didn't have the money for the big ones. I just had to tough it out," he said. He also contributed the love of his wife Patricia as the main factor in his survival. In fact, his 2000 release "Love Is Greater Than Me" was a testament to the fact that love is what delivered Duarte from the clutches of active drug use. "It was love that brought me out. (Patricia) taught me just how life could be with love," he said. "The album was about a lot of the things I went though. It didn't sell well, but that's okay. It's down, documented and I had a lot of fun making that record." Another thing "Love Is Greater Than Me" accomplished was the change of label to Zoe/Rounder Records. Duarte has been very happy with this new recording home. "I think better doors have opened up for them since they represent Alison Krauss and Union Station and the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtracks," he said. "I've got to hand it to them, they are still out there representing me and promoting me."


* * * * *

Comparisons to Texas legend Stevie Ray Vaughan are still frequent - he is from Texas and he favors blues music - and that is just fine with Duarte. "I don't mind when people say I sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix. They are just trying to familiarize themselves with my sound," he said. "Stevie Ray Vaughan is an immortal." Speaking of guitarists, the last couple of years has introduced a pack of young guitarists, each being touted as the "next big thing" in music. Jonny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd among them. In Duarte's opinion, the prospects of any of them living up to the image is slim. "Ninety-nine out of one hundred times they are not what they say. I've heard a lot of players and most of them aren't even close to being who they are touted to be," he said then smiled. "Bring your tough skin suit to this business." When asked to go into more detail about some guitarists, Duarte explained that the guitarists he holds in high esteem are established ones like John Scofield, Mike Stern and Angus Young. "Kenny Wayne (Shepherd) is a nice kid and all, but his playing is boring, unoriginal droll. He doesn't even sing," he said. "Like Robin Trower, he's trying to be (Jimi) Hendrix, but he doesn't sing. Kenny Wayne is the Robin Trower of Stevie Ray Vaughan's."


* * * * *

"Romp" promises to be an album that builds upon all the band has done before. Most of the album was penned by Duarte. Dennis Herring (producer of Duarte's most popular CD to date "Texas Sugar/Strat Magik") has returned to the producers seat. "It's still got the loud passionate sound, but it's more raw than previous releases," Duarte said. "Its got all new songs. More raw, more lean." One thing that that was amazingly clear when listening to the new album is the fact that Duarte's vocals sounded much better and melded with the guitar work much more fluidly than previous recordings. "I've just gotten better at writing and more confident with singing," he said. "Who doesn't want to be a crooner? I'm not a crooner, but I aspire to be one. I would like to someday think of my voice as an instrument too." As Duarte plays a demo of the album, explaining it's one of the last versions before the final cut, he talks about some of the songs. One of the amazing instrumentals is titled "Like Eric." "(John) Coltrane wrote a song called "Like Sonny" about Sonny Rollins," Duarte said. "This is my song for Eric Johnson. It has a lot of Eric-sounding guitar work, but don't expect it to be clean like his. its just 'Like Eric.'" The one cover song on the album is Bob Dylan's "One More Cup Of Coffee" - a song he had played for years, but had never considered recording until this album. "I recorded it for the president of my fan club." An amazing composition and the most disturbing song on the new album, is one called "Last Night (I Saw The Devil)." It's a poetic look at life as a person struggles with inner demons. "This song has elements of a lot of modern stuff on it," he said. "There's a part where the man wrestles with suicide and (Herring) layered the voice to sound like his inner voice is arguing with him. He did a really good job producing this one." Duarte did not state if the song was in any way autobiographical.

 

 

 


* * * * *

When he reflects on his career to date he smiles. "I think it's going pretty damn good. I don't have a gold/platinum record, but I'm known around the world," he said. "I'm a 'guitar god'. I'm ready to live up to that. I've met a lot of my idols and I've made an O.K. living at it. I get to sleep late (chuckles)." One thing that has been constant is the support of fans. Duarte knows this and never misses an opportunity to thank the ones who listen to and believe in his music. In fact, Duarte personally answers every bit of fan mail he receives with a hand-written note. "I want to thank my fans for all of the support they've given me throughout the years," he said.


* * * * *

 


BACK