What's important to Austin-based guitarist Chris Duarte is written all over his body.

A case in point is the strange tattoo on Duarte's chest--a reference to a treasured 1963 Stratocaster. Duarte played the instrument for more than a decade, in large part because it came into being the same year he did. When it was stolen during a visit to Manhattan in 1993, he bought another '63 Strat, but to commemorate the first one, he had its serial number permanently stamped near his heart. He still aches for that ax: Like a recent amputee suffering from phantom pain, he says he can feel its rosewood neck in his hand if he holds it out just so.

A second tattoo marks another seminal moment in Duarte's life. After a van carrying him and his band (bassist John Jordan and drummer Paul Mills) was broadsided by a Freight Liner semi truck outside of Commerce City last year, the guitarist had the Freight Liner logo imprinted on the shoulder that was injured in the crash. Clearly he believes that anything that doesn't kill him makes him stronger.

This attitude is one of the keys to the excitement inherent in Duarte's live shows (he's been touring almost nonstop since 1991) and his 1994 debut album on Silvertone Records, Texas Sugar/Strat Magik. He's earned a reputation as the best Texas bluesman since Stevie Ray Vaughan and has inspired critics to cook up some strange descriptives for his music--"muscular blues" and "punk blues" among them. Fortunately, Duarte likes most of the labels he's been given.

"I think they say that because we're real aggressive and we're just right in your face from the first note on," he notes. "When we start playing at the beginning of the night, we're playing hard. By the end of the night, we're playing twice as hard. It just keeps going like that. After the show, listeners are just whipped, man. They're beat. It's an emotionally and physically moving show. And that's why we're muscular. We just beat up on people. John, the bass player, and I just do an insane amount of pushups. We've got these arms on us."

True enough; Duarte is an imposing figure. In a business filled with rail-thin girly-men like Tom Petty and Les Claypool, Duarte is a burly sight to see: His standard uniform consists of Chuck Taylors, tattered jeans and T-shirts with the sleeves torn off (the better to show off his physique), and he wears his thick hair in a long, wild ponytail. He keeps up his appearance by engaging in a regular exercise regimen and steering clear of controlled substances, including alcohol. His biggest vice? He drinks a lot of Big Red soda pop.

A San Antonio native, Duarte quit school at sixteen to play guitar. Unlike Vaughan, however, he says his musical roots are in jazz. "It's my true love," he insists. "If I had a whole lot of money, I'd probably just concentrate on playing bop and jazz, because it's such a high art form. I mean, there's nothing like it when you pull off a complicated solo that says something. Now, a lot of cats can play, and technically, it's just perfect--but it doesn't communicate anything. There's nothing like it when you can truly converse in that language. It's all in the interpretation: It's your soul speaking.

"You're trying to find your voice," he goes on. "Musicians are always trying to find their voice. That's what we have to do. Now, I know change is not the greatest thing. But change is necessary for the life of music."

With this in mind, Duarte decided to take on the blues--to attempt to conquer the genre. He's making great strides toward this goal; his peers can't surpass his skill and passion. But what really separates him from the pack is a jazzy approach rare in blues. "We work off of a jazz improvisational format where we're all playing off each other's emotions," he says, adding that the trio format "allows me harmonic freedom. I'm the one doing most of the chords and tritones and stuff. Although John's got a lot of strings on his bass, it's still me that's on the top of the harmonic register. It's up to me to create the tension."

Duarte's playing has won him converts around the country, but his frequent appearances in this area have made Colorado among his strongest markets. In fact, Auroran Craig Keyzer, who assembled the discography for the biography Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire, is the head of the Chris Duarte fan club.

Like all of the guitarist's followers, Keyzer is eagerly awaiting the next Duarte album. This pressure doesn't seem to affect Duarte, however. "The first album shows pretty much what we've been doing for the last three years," he claims. "The second one will delve more into composition. I'm really looking forward to making the second one, because I want to kick the first one's butt. That's what I want to do."

There's no doubt Duarte can deliver the goods. When he's got a guitar in his hands, he's a man on fire. "What keeps us going is the music," he claims. "We're out there playing for music and for art's sake. It's gratifying when you work on something and it comes through...when everything in your head that you want to say through your instrument comes out, and you've said it with perfect eloquence. With intensity. With the right statement. There's no better high than that."

Chris Duarte, with Ging'breadmen. 9:30 p.m. Friday, December 9, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 S. Broadway, $7, 778-9916; Chris Duarte. 9 p.m. Tuesday, December 13, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $4, 447-0095.


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