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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

Music Scene
Today's blues artists look to the future

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Chris Duarte, who will perform during tonight's blues mele, says his musical genre must embrace the times

Jack Daniels Hawaiian Islands Rhythm & Blues Mele 2001
• Featuring Eric Johnson and Alien Love Child, Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King, and the Chris Duarte Group
6:30 p.m. today; gates open at 5:30 p.m. Kaka'ako Waterfront Park 732-6699 Also: Big Island concert 5:30 p.m. Saturday (gates open at 4:30 p.m.) at the Kona Brewing Company's Brewhouse Oasis
$25 general, $22 advance
• (808) 334-1133 or (808) 334-2739

Country has LeAnn Rimes, classical has Charlotte Church, pop has Mandy Moore, rap has Lil' Bow Wow.

There's hardly a genre of music that doesn't have its young poster child to appeal to the faddish and fashionable MTV generation.

Even blues, proud of its traditional roots, has a strapping young teen idol in Jonny Lang.

But the trick to luring the younger listeners isn't as simple as recruiting teeny-boppers with talent.

"Blues, I feel, has to embrace modern influences and the changing times," Texas guitar slinger Chris Duarte, who will perform at today's Jack Daniels Hawaiian Islands Rhythm & Blues Mele 2001, said during a recent phone interview. "We should modernize to get the kids interested."

Not that kids are music snobs. In fact, R&B and blues artists have always acknowledged their younger fans, who appreciate their smooth vibes and fiery fretwork.

But artists, producers, concert promoters and industry folk know that in order to build up future audiences, they have to target the young listeners.

"There is an excitement in new artists playing older styles of music," said Bruce Byrd, owner of Byrd's Audio in Waimea on the Big Island, who just returned from the 2001 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and noticed the interest from Gen-Xers. "They're spreading (their music) to a younger audience, and they're responding."

Galactic is a prime example of this phenomena. The funk-blues-acid jazz band from New Orleans has created a stir on college campuses across the nation with its flair for the danceable.

"They've caused a big thing nationwide," Byrd said. "It's shocking that young kids their age, who don't normally like what their parents listen to, are enjoying this funky music from the '70s."

He said concert promoters are helping this generation discover — or re-discover — the musical sounds of the past.

"This is what we're seeing in blues and rock," he said.

Old and new

The veteran performers know: They need to give people a reason to listen.

Dallas blues man Smokin' Joe Kubek has been playing professionally for 30 years. From playing nights at small clubs as a teenager to touring the world with about 270 gigs a year, Kubek has figured out that change is good, perhaps even necessary in this business.

"You gotta play like you feel it," said the 44-year-old guitarist in town for tonight's show. "I get bored with playing the same stuff. It's gotta grow."

His blend of Texas-style rock, jazz, blues and R&B has been Kubek's calling card. He defies what he calls "The Blues Police," traditionalists who resist the evolution of blues, by playing what feels right, what feels good. For him. No one else.

"There's a lot of cats out there who seem to think you can't do this or can't do that, because you're breaking tradition," Kubek said during a recent phone interview. "I can't see that at all. B.B. King, Muddy Waters — they all did something different. You could close your eyes and just hear it. I wanna play my own thing."

Borrowed and blues

Not to say R&B artists don't borrow from the legends. Or that these legends have to be R&B artists.

Duarte admits to growing up in San Antonio with an ear to the radio, listening to the Beatles like every red-blooded American kid.

But at age 13, he worked as a busboy in a restaurant that featured live jazz bands. He was hooked.

"The intricacies of the music really attracted me," said the 38-year-old Austin resident.

And his sound is still firmly rooted in rock, with Black Sabbath and AC/DC as heavy influences, along with Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Muddy Waters. He's also a big opera fan and loves listening to live tejano bands.

These influences are obvious in his recordings. His latest album, "Love Is Greater Than Me," is laden with familiar sounds. Tracks include Chicago-style blues, funk, Hendrix-esque guitars, even a Santana-inspired Latin fusion.

"It was a reawakening for me," Duarte said.

Of course, experimentation is not without its share of risks — and failures.

Fans weren't particularly receptive to Duarte's second album, "Tailspin Headwhack," in which he flexed his artistic muscles and tested the loyalty of his fans. The guitar playing was too intense and unrestrained for the likes of his fans, who weren't used to that from Duarte.

"They didn't understand it," he said, with a retrospective laugh. "They wanted more Stevie Ray Vaughan. But I liked it."

And sometimes that's all that matters.

"It's a tough business here," Duarte said, "so bring your tough-skin outfit."