Clean Living

Chris Duarte has kicked addiction, but he still has the blues

The comparisons were immediate: Chris Duarte was the new Stevie Ray Vaughan. The latter had been dead for four years when Duarte's first proper album appeared in 1994, and fans of the late blues giant were still looking for a suitable replacement. Duarte was quickly appointed. The "new SRV" mantle was never a perfect fit. Certainly, there were some similarities -- gorgeous guitar tone, fiery solos, driving Texas rhythm and, sadly, a raging appetite for drugs.

But the differences were just as great.

For starters, Duarte never harbored any burning desire to become a blues-rock god. He still doesn't. In fact, when talking with him, the conversation turns only fleetingly to blues. He'd rather talk jazz, and while he doesn't fancy himself a jazz musician, he'd like to be. "I still lean on John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Weather Report. John McLaughlin is my favorite guitar player," Duarte says. "I love those jazz guys. That's what I aspire to be. I don't consider myself a jazz player, but it's definitely a big factor in my playing."

Chris Duarte: He's as bluesy as a man in polka-dot pants can be
Mary Bruton
Chris Duarte: He's as bluesy as a man in polka-dot pants can be
Broadway Oyster Bar

Still, Duarte doesn't bristle at the SRV comparisons, nor does he mind the Hendrix associations. "Look, those guys are immortal, and it's flattering to be mentioned in the same breath with them," he says. "But I'm confident enough in my abilities to know that I'm not a clone. I'm trying to build on what they did, not repeat it. If you go to a Chris Duarte concert, you're not going to hear 'Pride and Joy' or 'Voodoo Chile.'"

Perhaps not, but even Duarte would acknowledge the impact these songs and their ilk made during his formative years. Raised in San Antonio on a steady diet of rock, Duarte spent the better part of the '70s with his brother's guitar perched on his knee while the record player spun albums by everyone from Hendrix and Black Sabbath to Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

In 1979, at the age of sixteen, Duarte moved out on his own and headed for Austin. By then a serious jazz fan, Duarte would soon fall under the spell of the blues, as well. Austin was a blues town with a thriving local scene headed by a then little-known Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duarte was among those who took notice of the guitarist. "I guess you could say he turned my head," he understates.

Duarte spent the 1980s hopping from band to band, alternately playing jazz-fusion and roadhouse blues. As Vaughan's star was rising on a national level, Duarte was one of a handful of Austin guitarists to fill the local void. It was during this period that he really developed his chops. It was also then that he developed a taste for heroin.

"I started using in the late eighties, but it wasn't a full blown monster until the early nineties," Duarte admits. Unlike many musicians whose bad habits escalate on the road, Duarte actually took to touring in an effort to quell his addiction. "If you look back to our schedule in '92 and '93, we were touring constantly. A lot of that was just to keep me clean," he says. Back home in Austin, clean living was more difficult. "I didn't even have to leave the house," he says. "All I had to do was pick up the phone and have it delivered to my front door."

Despite his addiction, the early- and mid-nineties marked a period of great success for the guitarist. In 1994, his first album, Texas Sugar/Strat Magik, was released to widespread acclaim. Packed with shuffling Texas blues, the album was a hit among both blues and rock fans. In 1995 he was named Best New Talent in Guitar Player magazine.

1997 saw the release of Duarte's sophomore album, Tailspin Headwhack. More experimental than its predecessor, Tailspin brought Duarte's love of jazz closer to the fore and featured punk and funk elements as well. Critics loved the album, and its release seemed a sign of good things to come. But it wasn't to be. The album sold well enough by blues standards but failed to meet the success of Texas Sugar/Strat Magik. His label, Silvertone Records, wasted no time in dropping Duarte from its roster. In short order, his wife threatened to do the same.

"Basically, my wife told me I had to make a choice between her and drugs," Duarte says. "It seems like an easy choice now, but it didn't at the time."

Duarte doesn't go into detail about the death throes of his addiction, but he makes it clear that kicking the habit was no easy task. Of course, neither was re-igniting his recording career after regaining sobriety.

"I had to go out there and prove to the industry that I was still hungry," he says. "That's something I'm really proud of, that I was able to do it on my own."

The result of his efforts is an alliance with Rounder Records. Last month, the label released Duarte's second album since he joined the fold in 2000. The new disc, Romp, moves Duarte ever further from the Vaughan/Hendrix nexus. The album doesn't completely forego those influences, but it presents them in a more tongue-in-cheek fashion. The second track, "101," all but shouts: "You want your Hendrix rip-off? I got your Hendrix rip-off right here." Duarte also tips his hat to fellow Texan Eric Johnson on the track "Like Eric."

Mostly, though, it's an album that shows Duarte finding his own voice. There are a couple of covers, but even these are handled with the confidence of a man who knows how things ought to sound.

That sense is further strengthened when discussing the current state of blues with Duarte. He won't disrespect the dead, but the living are left to fend for themselves. Duarte's assessments of his fellow musicians follow a pattern: an apparent compliment followed by a damning dismissal.

Take current media darlings the North Mississippi Allstars, for example: "I can appreciate what they're trying to do," says Duarte. "The jam-band thing is kind of cool."

But?

"Their playing is kind of sloppy. The guitar player just doesn't excite me."

How about Kenny Wayne Shepherd?

"Kenny and I are friends. He's a nice kid, and I like him a lot."

And yet?

"I keep waiting for him to come out of the box. There's just nothing original there," Duarte says, then tellingly adds: "It's just the same old Stevie Ray."

With his blues elders, Duarte is more respectful, but his true feelings still show through. When the topic turns to former label-mate Buddy Guy, Duarte first enthuses: "Buddy's a great guy. Whenever I see him I'm very reverent because he's one of the few surviving legends." Then he adds, "Of course, a lot of the stuff he does is kind of showy."

There's some ego at work here, certainly, but no apparent malice. Duarte talks with the air of a man who has seen too much and struggled too long to have to lie about what he thinks.

As for his own future direction, Duarte's focus alternates from the ridiculous to the sublime. "Plans for the future? World domination. I hope to enslave the human race for my own purposes," he says before turning contemplative. "No, I just want to keep growing as a person and as a player. I owe it to myself, to my wife and to my fans. I just want to keep getting better."

The tone having grown serious, he backs away. "Sorry, that started off kind of profound, but it petered out at the end."

Perhaps so, but with a new album and a new lease on life, Duarte's career shows no sign of doing the same.

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