When Parker Wheeler looks at Max Sullivan, he doesn't see a 20-year-old guitarist. He sees the future of the blues.
Wheeler, a respected, longtime veteran of the blues scene from Amesbury, says it's young artists like Sullivan who will carry the deep-rooted music of the blues well into the 21st century.
"Max has 'it', a talent, a gift," said the harmonica-playing Wheeler, who has become a mentor to Sullivan.
Wheeler, who has watched Sullivan grow as a musician and a performer in recent years, appreciates what he says is the guitarist's juvenile twist on the blues. As the host of the weekly Sunday night blues session Downstairs at The Grog in Newburyport, Wheeler is looking forward to welcoming Sullivan back to the Grog series this Sunday for his third appearance.
"People like him, and they dance to him," Wheeler said. "He's a work in progress, and where that goes is unlimited."
Sullivan first picked up a guitar when he was 13. Following the garage band-oriented trend popular in his middle school, he developed a love for music and worked on improving his guitar skills. He remembers playing an amateur rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" early on.
After two years of practice, his mother encouraged him to take the stage at the 111 Village Square restaurant in Hampstead, N.H., after she saw a flier promoting an open mike there while the two were out to lunch.
The 15-year-old from southern New Hampshire went with his go-to play list of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan covers for the evening.
A year later, with more parental encouragement, Sullivan introduced singing to his performances, experimenting first with "My, My, Hey, Hey" by Neil Young and "Crossroads" by Eric Clapton.
He's gone on to perform on the boardwalk at Hampton Beach and venues from Epping, N.H., to Somerville, with even a few appearances in New York and Chicago. Blackwells on Long Island in New York booked the young guitarist, but he said his enthusiastic performance overwhelmed the restaurant, and he has not been back since. The musician thinks that might be a good sign though.
"A year ago, I didn't move that much, but now I try to be as vocal and active as I can be," he said. "I try to stay technically proficient, while putting on a good show."
Sullivan, who pursues his music full time, said his parents have been very supportive of his musical journey. Their biggest contribution to his career: a 1977 Guild guitar that he received as a surprise graduation gift two years ago.
"It's gorgeous, and I play it at every gig," Sullivan said. "It's a beautiful instrument." The guitarist also has a Fender American Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster on backup, but says the Guild is his guitar of choice.
Primarily known for the blues, Sullivan said his upcoming album due out in September transcends the genre. He said the goal of the release is to fuse elements of blues with edgier influences from punk-rockers like The Ramones and The Pixies to create an individual and unique sound.
"I don't care what genre my music is as long as it's quality," he said.
But the way Wheeler sees it is Sullivan represents the new face of the blues.
"Seeing people like Max means this music will be played for a long, long time," he said.
While Sullivan didn't start out on the blues path, he plans to continue weaving it into his music while developing a sound all his own.
"I never thought blues would be such a big part of my life," Sullivan said. "I feel safe; I now have a mission
IF YOU GO
What: Parker Wheeler's Blues Party featuring Max Sullivan, as well as Lydia Warren and Amadee Castenell
When: Sunday, 7 to 11 p.m.
Where: Downstairs at The Grog, 13 Middle St., Newburyport
How: Admission $5. Call 978-465-8008 or visit www.thegrog.com.