The Chris Duarte Group
May 10 2013
10:00 PM - 11:30 PM
401 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Duarte was born in San Antonio, Texas, and was first inspired by music at age 8 after seeing Fiddler On The Roof on television. Duarte first began playing on his brother's guitar and then obtained his own electric guitar at the age of 14. In 1979, Duarte moved to Austin, Texas, and purchased a 1963 Fender Stratocaster guitar for $500 and began exploring various genres including the jazz music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
Duarte won a label recording contract with Silvertone Records and released Texas Sugar/Strat Magik in 1994, and was named "Best New Talent" in Guitar Player's 1995 Reader's Poll. He finished fourth in the magazine's "Best Blues Guitarist" category behind Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and B.B. King.
Finding His Soul Again
An artist’s lifetime is sometimes dictated by the heights they reach, the reaction they register or the body of work compiled during their working years. Chris Duarte is certainly making a case for his body of work he’s producing, this being number eleven of releases, but is he achieving the right reaction for his efforts? With the release of Chris Duarte’s latest opus, ‘My Soul Alone’, Chris Duarte is still reaching for new ground while also throwing out some of his best blues work to date. The maturity in the phrasing and melodic statements are a far cry from the early raw days of his first few releases. This could only be achieved through relentless roadwork that allows Chris to ply his trade and to work and rework melodic ideas. “I can practice all day in my basement but it’s a totally different ballgame when I get on stage. More of a physical dynamic is the currency I trade in when I’m playing live.” Even though Chris is in the studio, I can hear him getting more physical while there.
The album starts off with a swinging type of blues with a vocal more akin to 40’s big band style. The rough and course voice is still there rather than a crooner’s touch but he’s swinging the lines. The guitar solos are full bodied with just a touch of frenetic moments that Chris is known for. ‘Show Me That You Want It’ sets a good tone for the opening salvo.
Next up is another example of Chris taking clues from his early years growing up and mixing it with these pseudo county leanings on the guitar. ‘Yes It’s You’ is a nod towards the Beatles and other ‘Pop’ efforts Chris has been penning and with each release I can hear the improvement. Time will only tell if this song is a winner but it makes me hopeful that one day that hit will come. It will be long overdue.
‘Take Me Now’ is more of the ‘naff’ pop Chris is exploring like his previous release of ‘Summer’s Child’. “I keep hearing these retro-like grooves with a Steely Dan like vocal line over it. I’m probably going to go to my grave taking chances like this song.” Jazzy guitar work over a bluesy mode wins out on this song. This one always perks my ears up for new things every time I hear it.
Almost every album that Chris has put out with Mike Varney, there’s always been a minor blues and a slow major blues on the album. Normally I would really grow tired of the repetition but Chris challenges himself to tweak and twist the songs arrangement so that no two are going to sound like the last. His latest minor offering, “A Dollar Down and Feeling Low’, stays low and evocative with what I think is his best minor work to date. The phrasing is more moving and flowing with its subtle nuances achingly played. Chris’s touch on the guitar is definitely much improved and the notes actually touch the inner core. Then on the flip-side there’s ‘Lazy Afternoon’ with its true reach at a crooner standard style. The lyrics are lyrical and time dated and the guitar work is first rate jazzy with a touch of BB here and there. If we were to stop here with the album I would consider it a success.
We can’t deny Hendrix is a big muse for Chris and it’s plainly stated in this album. ‘Outta My Way’ is a spot on Hendrixian nod but obviously with Chris’s style thrown in the mix. Starting off with a hard driving riff but then it opens up with the patented Hendrix 7th chord accents that propel this rocket of a song on its way. The guitar accents are vocal like and at times a frenzy. The quirky lead in to the middle solo is typical of the twists and turns for originality and lends to it that ‘turn-on-a-dime’ wildness that should be present in songs like this; Hendrixian. The next Jimi offering is ‘Can’t Shut Me Out’. First the riff at the top and in comes the effects drenched guitar. With an almost vocal like quality to the guitar the phrasing is no doubt from Jimi and the driving rhythm underneath enables all the elements to come together when the vocals start. The interlude at the top of the chorus is the only departure from the Hendrix mode but it plays well with the chorus hook shouted out. Another adrenalin driving guitar vehicle and I wouldn’t expect anything less on this album. This is the CDG we’ve come to know and love.
Jumping back on the blues side of the album, because if there’s one thing that put Chris Duarte on the international stage; it is his blues playing. ‘Being known and referred to as a blues player is not a hindrance to me. If there’s anything that makes it easier for people to relate to me or if it’s easier to gain access to me than it’s all for the better’, Chris remarks. “I don’t shrink behind it or cringe from it because I love playing the blues.” I agree. It’s Chris’s prowess and originality in the blues field that has always made him an interest to me. So when I heard ‘Sweet Little Girl’ I knew Chris was drawing from one of his favorite blues masters; Howling Wolf. Back in the day when Chris was just a sideman in Bobby Mack and Night Train, Howling for My Darling was in every day rotation with the band when they played. It’s no surprise that the infectious rhythm and drive the song has would be inspiration down the years in his career. Written for his daughter, the vocal phrasing isn’t the same as Wolf but the ‘sweet’ sentiments he gives to his little girl is heartwarming. Then Chris quickly takes over when the solo romps and rolls along this jumping number. “Keeping this rhythm going isn’t as easy as it sounds” quips Duarte, “You always find out your studio limitations when you’ve got to track your rhythm tracks.” On the heels of Sweet Little Girl you’ve also got the Party swing song, ‘Bucked It Up’. “The male anthem for some of us” as Duarte claims as he has not been without his foibles in life. Why not poke fun with it and put your troubles in song. This song is just classic with the Hubert Summlin like tone on the lead and the rhythm guitar borrowing from piano phrasing and horn section kicks on the chorus. Later the solo tone turns towards a Buddy Guy styling and this party just rocks and rolls. Not to be forgotten is the ‘Stripper’ like tom-tom beats on the verses. Really like this song.
The title cut, ‘Leave My Soul Alone’ is Chris giving a nod towards the Black Keys. “I was first exposed to those guys when I did the Romp album.” “Our producer at the time, Dennis Herring, brought that song in, the Romp that is, and it was the Black Keys version of it.” It definitely has that stripped down sound with the classic vocal and guitar unison lines in it. With the verse rolling along like a tire with a bump on it, the song then blows wide open with the chorus and a rock and roll scream to “Leave My Soul Alone!” The guitars thicken up and the drums pound out the booms and the solo is an all-out assault on the instrument itself. Bending and twisting through sonic blasts and high vertical bends it settles back for another verse and then blows up again. Emotionally stirring this song deserves to be the title cut for its shear ferocity that it wields.
The last two cuts are more experimental and artistic reaches. “I just wanted to tell a story in one of the songs and this western motif I settled on was a lot of fun.” Telling the story of a young man that takes up and life of crime to feed his family is scattered among this country’s western lore. “I just wish I could write like Dylan” The guitar is playing this almost hypnotic folk type melody and the solo comes in mirroring the vocal line and then soaring on high as if it’s flying in the vast open Big Sky of the Midwestern plains. This song kind of hung with me after it was over. Then we have the most different of all the songs; Carelessness. “This is the name of a lodge that I met the violin player at during a jam we did in Northern California; Careless. The first song we jammed on was Freedom Jazz Dance and it was a blast.” Then when Mike Varney thought the collaboration between the two; violin and guitar, could yield some potential fireworks, Mike wanted to get Madz Tolling on one song with the upcoming album. So it was up to Chris to write one for the occasion and with that he drew on their first time together as inspiration. “Since it was Freedom Jazz Dance that brought us together then why not come up with a melody that’s angular and quirky like Jazz Dance.” Add a bit more spice with the solo section being in 7/8 time and then give a nod to one of Chris’s favorites John McGlaughlin and you’ve got the vehicle for a fusion tour de force. Madz violin just soars throughout the song with the agility and ease of a master conjuring up the voice of Jean Luc Ponty. Chris then answers in his unbounded energetic style that you can’t help but bop your head and smile while the drums lay down a furious barrage and the bass acts as the glue that brings it all together. One of the most adventurous songs Chris has put down so far in his career. I hope there are more like this one in the future
My opinion is that this is a level up in Chris’s all around skills. His songwriting is getting better, vocals phrasing and lyrics are better and his tone is still a marvel at how dexterous he can be with the varying styles he continues to display time and time again. Watching Chris grow has not been meteoric but it’s been steady and he’s still getting better on the guitar. In a time when most of our legends have been content to rest on their laurels and continue to mine familiar ground, it’s both a pleasure and refreshing to see that Chris always wants to expand and grow even after over 20 years of being on the road. Not many have the energy in them to do that and not many have the soul to pull it off.
- Robert Holman
- Independent Music Writer