April 12, 2023

Chris Duarte is a Texas born-and-bred blues guitarist and songwriter who first grabbed media attention in 1994 with his album Texas Sugar / Strat Magik. Produced by Dennis Herring. Duarte played that one as a power trio with drummer Brannen Temple and bassist John Jordan; the title was a nod to the Red Hot Chili Peppers 1991 Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and indeed he shares the Chili Peppers’ stripped down, basic rock’n’roll aesthetic. His early influences included such jazz luminaries as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, although it was the blues stylings of fellow Texans Steve and Jimmie Vaughan that really took hold in the end. Considering that Jimmie and the late Stevie were brothers, it’s astonishing just how their styles diverged, but influences from both can be heard in Duarte’s new album Ain’t Giving Up, along with rockabilly flavours reminiscent of Dave Edmunds.

Photo by Jim Arbogast

He has done the round of various labels, but this latest set sees him signed to Mascot’s blues-rock subsidiary Provogue, which also hosts Beth Hart, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Walter Trout, amongst many other top names. It also sees him reunited with producer Herring for the first time in over 20 years, and once again features Brannen Temple on drums, although he also jams over looped basic drum programs for some of the tracks – whatever worked on the day. Duarte’s style is the very definition of raw electric blues; there are hardly any overdubs, or even re-records; most of the guitar work was tracked live when they were setting up the studio sounds and getting the first takes down. The album might also be termed the definition of lo-fi, without any pretensions to proggy arrangements or tendency towards over-production.

It kicks off in fine style with the lead single Nobody But You; a chaotic introductory melée suddenly crystallises into a straight-ahead rock drum beat and insistent, single-note bass line underpinning a vocal take that could almost have been recorded over a vintage phone line. Slide and standard guitars vie for the limelight, with a great, phased backing riff; check it out at the foot of this page. This is followed by Big Fight, in which more feedback chaos gradually coalesces into a slow rock with half-spoken, sleepy vocals laced with 1950s-style quick echo over an intermittent bassline; the whole shebang kind of fizzles down into silence at the end.

Can Opener is a mid-tempo instrumental 12-bar jam that channels Jimmy Vaughan in his Fabulous Thunderbirds days, which can hardly help but be an album highlight, while Gimme Your Love is an empowering anthem laid over a Checking-Up-On-My-Baby shuffle blues. It features a great, wailing solo, with uncontrolled screaming feedback at the end; Herring captures Duarte chuckling, “Just like I planned it,” before muting the faders. Lies Lies Lies is a great bit of rocking pub blues featuring backing vocals; Ain’t Giving Up On Us is an old-fashioned shuffle, heavy on the Stevie Ray influence.

Look What You Made Me Do features a drumming change from hi-hat to heavy ride in the middle, a rare mood change mid-song, but for this reviewer, the best song is kept until last: Weak Days appears to contain two alternative vocal takes at the same time. The result is a neat bit of ambience, in which Duarte sings almost – but not quite – the same thing, and we get to hear both versions from opposite sides of the stereo pan. It’s a 7-minute slow blues in the full-on pub band tradition, and beautifully executed.

If you’re looking for complex arrangements and telepathically tight, virtuosic backings, then my advice would be to stick to Neal Morse or Dream Theater. But if you want to hear a genuine Texas Bluesman pounding the hell out of his Strat while growling barely controlled chaos into the microphone, it’s about time you caught up with Chris Duarte.

Ain’t Giving Up by Chris Duarte is released on CD, LP and Digital on 14 April 2023 by Provogue