In Chris Duarte’s musical view, the journey is as important as the destination, maybe even more so. Since emerging in the mid-1990s from Austin, Texas, a blues guitar hotbed, Duarte has forged new pathways for the blues and scouted numerous fresh trails for creative musical expression. Lauded for the exquisite artistry and vivid tonality of his six-string work, over the last decade Duarte has also proven his considerable mettle as a songwriter, singer and bandleader.
The sum total of his talents prompted Blues Access to extol him as a “genius,” but Duarte sees his work in a much more basic and fluid context. “I’m a musician who is still out there searching for better ways to get from point A to point B, and better my craft. I’m just not content staying in one place.”
On Romp, the second Zoë/Rounder release from the Chris Duarte Group, the band and its pilot tear it up across an abundance of locales on the musical map. Produced by Dennis Herring—who manned the boards for Texas Sugar/Strat Magik, Duarte’s debut album—the disc is draped with the proverbial Delta kudzu found in Oxford, Mississippi, where it was recorded.
What Duarte refers to as “that funky North Mississippi thing they’ve got going on” pervades the opening title track, written by Junior Kimbrough, on which Duarte and company ramp up the metallic volume of juke joint blues. What follows includes a syncopated Latin groove on “Fire’s Gone Out,” a haunting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” the classic Texas shuffle of “Bb Blues,” and the closing gospel grace note of “Take It To The Lord.”
As much a fan as a musician, Duarte also takes some cues from his heroes, peers and pals. “101” salutes the jams of Jimi Hendrix in Duarte's own distinctive fashion, while “Like Eric” pays fealty to his friend and fellow Austinite Eric Johnson (and nods to history in its title, inspired by John Coltrane’s song “Like Sonny,” written in the spirit of Sonny Rollins). “My My” was cued by the sonic bursts of Jon Spencer, while “Mr. Neighbor” is informed by Duarte’s admiration for the writing of Elvis Costello and, in the final passage, the melodic spirit of John Lennon. As he has on all four of his albums, Duarte uses the blues as a launching pad from which he explores a solar system of musical modes and realms.
Duarte’s open-ended and exploratory approach can be traced to his initial inspiration to make music when he saw “Fiddler on the Roof” on TV as a youngster. “I immediately wanted to play something. Didn’t get an instrument in my hands for about eight years, but the seed was planted.” In his early teens, growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Duarte started learning to play on his older brother’s guitar while voraciously digging into everything from the Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Black Sabbath to punk rock. By 14 he got his first electric guitar and locked into a devotional connection with the instrument and its possibilities.
In 1979, at the age of 16, Duarte moved on his own to Austin “and bought a ‘63 Stratocaster for $500.” He initially explored his love for the jazz of Coltrane, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, but enjoyed a blues epiphany when he heard the then largely-unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Continental Club. “Blues was king in Austin,” Duarte recalls, and he soon earned a virtual Ph.D in blues music. Playing with Texas favorites like Bobby Mack & Night Train and Junior Medlow & The Bad Boys, he quickly earned a rep as a hot new gun in a town with an army of guitar talents. At the same time he dug into the work of such Austin guitar legends as Jimmie Vaughan, Denny Freeman and Derek O'Brien, paying special note to the rhythmic foundation that’s a hallmark of the Lone Star blues style.
Duarte’s creative spirit prompted him to join forces with his longtime partner, bassist John Jordan, and step out front in the early 1990s. “I just wanted to get out there and play the ideas and voices I heard in my head,” he recalls. He won a major label deal with Silvertone Records and released Texas Sugar/Strat Magik in 1994 to considerable immediate notice. He was named “Best New Talent” in Guitar Player’s 1995 Reader's Poll, and finished fourth in the magazine’s “Best Blues Guitarist” category behind legends Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and B.B. King. But something more than just blues guitar wizardry was at work within the Chris Duarte Group. Musician magazine recognized it three years later on Tailspin Headwhack, praising “Duarte’s monstrous chops, from funk to punk, from Hendrix to B.B. King, all marked by Duarte’s percussive, in-your-face Strat sound and a subtle use of samples, loops and electronics.” Love Is Greater Than Me, his 2000 debut release on Zoé/Rounder, even further expanded Duarte’s lexicon with whiffs of grunge, jazz and funk amidst the rocking blues.
All along the way, the Chris Duarte Group has whipped up thrills and chills on countless stages, logging a good half a million miles in Bluta, their reliable touring van, since its purchase in 1996. Now with new drummer Ed Miles in place and making his recorded debut with the band on Romp, Duarte has his eyes and imagination firmly fixed on the future.
After all, the journey is still at hand. “I know I have a long way to go,” concludes Duarte. “It’s all about exploring more in music and seeing what else is out there. That’s what eggs me on. And making people feel good. There’s nothing like it when you get on stage and move an audience. It’s an incredible feeling."