He may have done some crazy things, like dropping out of high school in San Antonio as a 16-year-old to move to Austin but guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Duarte has shown his parents — and the rest of the world — he has his head on straight after all.
How many other blues and blues-rock songwriters do you know who look to Shakespeare for inspiration in their songwriting? “If you just spend enough time reading Shakespeare, you’ll see the whole panorama of human emotions,” Duarte says in a phone interview from a tour stop in Virginia, “so I try to incorporate some of that drama into my songs, to move people emotionally the way we’re moved when we hear great Dylan songs like ‘Hard Rain,’ or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’” But Shakespeare is not his only influence. “I also love the lyricism you can find in a lot of the classic Broadway musicals.”
Known for his fiery, venom-tipped guitar solos and for playing with a trio for the last 18 years, Duarte caught his first big break in 1994 when he was signed to Silvertone Records and released his first internationally distributed album, “Texas Sugar/Strat Magic.” He made waves on the international blues-rock scene and began touring the U.S., Canada, and Europe immediately after.
Like Robert Cray, Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks, and Dylan himself, Duarte believes blues music has got to keep evolving to survive as a vital musical genre. “I love the traditional blues,” he says, “but I also want to push the music forward, too. I love what Derek [Trucks] does when he gets going with that slide [guitar] but I also want to be thought of as a forward thinking guy, in other words, to keep expanding the parameters of modern blues.”
Duarte performs on Thursday, June 25, on the Trenton War Memorial stage, where the audience will be seated with him on the stage for greater intimacy and a club-like atmosphere. He gives a free guitar master class prior to the concert. At the concert he will be accompanied by his longtime drummer, Jeff Reilly, and bassist Matt Stallard. Like Duarte, they are also based in Atlanta. Duarte moved to Atlanta from Austin in October, 2005, after getting married.
Unlike many other musicians, Duarte has a good understanding of the importance of the press. It was a music columnist Graham Snyder from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who launched his career in 1986, writing about a show he performed in Dallas. “I was playing a gig with Junior Medlow and the Bad Boys at JJ’s Blues Bar and he couldn’t believe we were putting so much energy into a show for such a small crowd, so he called me ‘the next promising guitar player to come out of Texas, along with David Grissom.’ He put me and David Grissom in the same sentence and that’s pretty much what got the ball rolling. I was still very young and when you’re that young, you’re considered kind of a phenom.” Also, Duarte’s father was a reporter for a Catholic newspaper in San Antonio. His father later left the newspaper business to work for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C. His mother worked as an administrator for a Catholic college in Texas and still resides in San Antonio.
He has an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister, “so I’m right in the middle of all those people, and it just came out in perfect sequence when my mom had kids, boy-girl-boy-girl-boy,” he says. Duarte became obsessed with the guitar as a 13-year-old and learned advanced techniques very quickly through a lot of hard work. When he dropped out of high school and moved to Austin, he quickly secured a gig with Bobby Mack and Night Train, a band that toured regionally around Texas.
‘My parents had already divorced, so we were just living with my mom in San Antonio,” he says of his decision to move to Austin, “and I knew from the time I was 14 I wanted to be a musician. So I moved to Austin with a friend of mine into an efficiency apartment. I just wanted to be a musician, I didn’t want to play music to meet girls; world domination was my goal.”
Several years after moving to Austin, as a present for his mother, he says,”I walked in to U.T. [University of Texas at Austin] and took all the GED tests and passed them all in one day, with no studying. I was always an above-average student in school.”
Duarte credits both parents for his success as a musician, since they were big on the Beatles and Joan Baez. “I remember the first record that I bought was the Beatles single, ‘Hey Jude.’ My older brother was playing guitar first, then my mom got me one, too, and we both learned from the Beatles.”
Even though he spends much of his time traveling around the U.S. in a van on grueling tours, often involves driving 21 hours for three hours on stage, Duarte says he realizes he’s blessed to do what he does for a living. “It’s such a rush when everything is going right on stage and when those musical thoughts coming out of your head are coming out of your guitar, it’s just the greatest feeling, and there’s nothing like it in the world.
“I think I’m one of the luckiest people alive, because I’m getting paid to do what I already enjoy doing. I’ve been able to do my thing, play my original music and get paid for it, and I’ve been doing it since 1991. I haven’t had to get those jazz gigs and play quiet or get those wedding gigs and play all the requests,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky that people have been supportive of what I do.”
Since the critical, if not commercial, success of “Texas Sugar/ Strat Magik” in 1994, Duarte’s other releases include “Tailspin Headwhack” in 1997 and “Love Is Greater Than Me” in 2000, also for Silvertone. His current release is “Vantage Point” for Blues Bureau International.
Apparently, Shakespeare and Broadway are not Duarte’s only influences. “Certainly, [fellow Texan, the late] Stevie Ray Vaughan, but also John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck. But my number one musical idol is [jazz saxophonist] John Coltrane,” he says. “I try to incorporate the jazz sensibility into what I’m doing. I’m trying to break out of the box that is blues scales that people normally associate with guitar players, yet I don’t want to be too cerebral about it. My live shows still have a lot of passion to them, as well as spontaneity.”
Chris Duarte, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Thursday, June 25, 7 p.m. Free guitar master class 5 to 6 p.m. prior to the concert. 609-984-8400 or www.thewarmemorial.com.