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.