Pragmatic blues

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Chris Duarte Group - Live at The Handlebar - March 7th Chris Duarte Group - Live at The Handlebar - March 7th

Chris Duarte has made peace with his image in the market

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Duarte has been shooting blues-tinged sparks off his guitar for 20 years and eleven albums, garnering comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, among other legends. But Duarte's membership in the Blues Guitarist Club might be more superficial than fitting. Sure, he can sling off fleet-fingered solos on heavy-gauge strings with the best of them, but virtually since the beginning, Duarte has worked jazz, soul and funk influences into his music, writing virtually all the songs on his albums.
Duarte has a show coming up at The Handlebar on March 7, and a new album out called "My Soul Alone," so I decided to interview him. What I got was a fascinating (and admirably honest) conversation about the ups, downs and compromises that come with the territory of a career in music.
Duarte says the inspiration behind his new album started off as practical.
"It began with (producer) Mike Varney saying we needed to have some more blues on this album, because we need to get a distributor in Europe," he said, taking me a bit by surprise. "Sometimes it's a business-related or pragmatic approach in the very beginning stages of putting a project together. So I thought, okay, I'd love to write some more traditional blues, but with my kind of quirkiness to it. So it's got some slow modern blues, but instead of me taking it to these climactic, huge heights, I've kept it kind of mellow."
Duarte is quick to point out that "My Soul Alone" ended up featuring more than blues music. "There's other stuff on there, too. There's the title track, where I went for a Black Keys-type of feel, and another one called 'Take Me Now' that has sort of a Steely Dan influence."
He also says that just because there were business concerns in the origin of the album, that doesn't mean he didn't give it his all: "If I'm going to make the compromise, I'm going to have as much fun as I can with it, and try to make it as unmistakably mine as possible. I cannot go into a studio and just do a throwaway song. But if I'm going to play the blues, I'm going to do it a little bit different."
Duarte says to an extent, he's made peace with how he's perceived in the marketplace.
"I think people know me as a blues guitarist," he says. "And that's okay; I've come to accept that. But I'd like to be known as more of a songwriter, because that's what I'm trying to do. But my financial situation dictates that I have to play to my strengths and play the blues stuff, rather than being completely indulgent."
Beyond the blues, however, Duarte has a wide range of influences that, at some point, he'd like to incorporate into his own songs.
"I love Coltrane," he says. "I'm a John McLaughlin fanatic. I wrote this song for the new album that's kind of a nod towards (McLaughlin's fusion group) The Mahavishnu Orchestra. I love Beethoven, though that might not have come out yet (laughs). That's why I'm trying to get money together and get my home studio built. Then I can crank out whatever I want to crank out."
Duarte says that sometimes it's a struggle not to become frustrated, at least when he's not performing.
"When I'm offstage, when I have time off, that's when I start getting cynical," he says. "And that's because I'm looking at my bottom line. I think of my labor costs. But that being said, when I get onstage, and the music's right, it reaffirms everything. I know that this is what I want to do. This is where I want to be."