There's a New Guitar-God-In-Training In Town, and Danny Sveinson's Only 11
A rapid-fire barrage of blues-metal licks has worked its rowdy charm on the Saturday-night crowd of 5,000. The guitarist responsible for the musical pyrotechnics roams the immense stage, scattering handfuls of customized picks to the clutching fans, then steps up and balances on the top of his amp before leaping back down, never flubbing a note. The party-hearty audience roars its approval, and the six-string slinger responds with a boyish grin.
No wonder. He's 10 years old.
Three months after that show-stealing performance last April at Whistler's Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival, Danny Sveinson, aka the Rock and Roll Kid, stands behind the stage curtains of the Yale Hotel, in a holding area provided for underage performers. It's the venerable blues joint's weekly Saturday-afternoon jam, and a few feet away the drummer for local club stalwarts Incognito propels the band through a harmonica-laced shuffle. In a few minutes, Sveinson--who's now reached the ripe old age of 11--will make his own mark on a stage that's hosted the likes of John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy, Ronnie Earl, and Rick Derringer. The kid's in good company.
When his turn comes, the soon-to-be sixth grader ambles out, methodically testing his gear while the compelling strains of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" blare from the club's PA. After being introduced by the MC as "a young man from Surrey who's destined for greatness", Sveinson, accompanied by the teenage duo of drummer Conrad Dykman and bassist Matt Grose, launches directly into an original, Joe Satriani-style instrumental that takes the mostly over-40 patrons by surprise; they seem unsure what to make of this scrawny sparkplug.
During a twangy number called "I Wish Neil Young Would Buy This Song From Me Blues", Sveinson takes a tip from Albert Collins and heads out into the crowd, stopping here and there to offer close-ups of his busy fingers. After a tasty wah-wah solo, the diminutive picker hops back on-stage and ends the song by proclaiming, "Where are you, Neil?" Whether enamoured of the raucous music or not, the Yale regulars holler in appreciation of the youngster's bravado.
Cameraman Bob Fugger takes a break after closely trailing Sveinson on his off-stage jaunt; he'll be following him a lot more in the future. Local company Mars Entertainment is shooting a one-hour documentary that will shadow the musician for the next year as he sets out on a path that could, quite possibly, lead to rock glory. The film's producer, Marsha Newbery, perches on a nearby barstool, soaking up the scene. She's convinced that Sveinson harbours the certain something that can turn people into stars, and plans to capture the elusive element in bloom.
"I want to do a pop-idol-in-the-making kind of thing," she explains, "and see what happens. How does an 11-year-old become famous, what does that do to him, and what does that do to his family? His family is still figuring it out, and that's going to be the beauty of the documentary--they're not experts, you know, they don't work in the music industry. They're casting around to try and find the best people they can to give them advice, and figure out, 'What do we do with this kid who has this amazing drive and this amazing talent?' "
Out on the street behind the bar, Sveinson's father, Darwin, loads a box of CDs into the trunk of his car. They're copies of Danny's first release, a John Bottomley-produced EP of original instrumentals recorded in May of 2004. "Nobody bought a CD," notes the elder Sveinson with a mock grumble. "Wrong kinda venue, I think."
That's not totally true, though. Danny did sell one to an enthusiastic woman who approached him in front of the club before the show. "Are you that Rock and Roll Kid everyone's talking about?" she asked. "I want to buy your CD." In a flash, the youngster had earned enough for a new set of strings.
When Danny gets called away by the filmmakers for a post-show, on-camera interview, his architectural-designer dad fields the question of how much this whole Rock and Roll Kid project involves him pushing his son. Or how much of it is Danny pushing himself.
"Or Danny pushing me!" he counters with a grin that deepens the laugh lines around his 44-year-old eyes. "That's it, because the whole thing is that Danny has control. Nothing happens without him wanting to do it, because I don't want him to be one of those kids with a stage dad that forces him to do everything, and then he's 13 and he hates music and he doesn't want to ever do it again."
THE SVEINSON FAMILY HOME sits at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in the Fleetwood area of Surrey, but inside the house, loudness rules. And it's not just the guitar protégé who brings the noise. Seven-year-old Mike Sveinson is making a serious racket on a drum kit located in the practice space between the living room and garage. "Hey, Dad!" he hollers. "Wanna hear my hardest drumming ever?" When Darwin casually replies with "How could I say no?", the pintsize percussionist takes it as a challenge to test the durability of those synthetic skins. But he's not slamming away in hopes of one day backing his burgeoning bro, because Mike is emphatic about wanting to play in his own band. And neither is he a hard-core devotee of AC/DC, the Aussie metal act whose gritty "TNT" first got Danny hooked on guitar. For the littlest Sveinson, the music world revolves around Avril Lavigne.
Safely clasped in metal stands in front of Mike's Concert-brand kit is his older sibling's impressive array of electric guitars. There's a blue Strat, a mahogany Gibson Les Paul Standard (limited edition, no less), and the black Gretsch DuoJet that Sveinson handled so well at the Yale. But the Rock and Roll Kid's instrument of choice these days is a bright-red Paul Reed Smith, the model favoured by his current number-one guitar hero, Alex Lifeson of Rush.
Lying in one corner of the room is the body of Danny's first six-string, a mini Squire he got when he was eight. It's the same one that he took apart and mounted on a piece of cardboard as part of a science-fair project entitled "How Does an Electric Guitar Produce Sound", which was on display last spring at Tom Lee Music in Surrey. Via that outlet Sveinson met Sukhjinder Sandhu, aka Coach, who's been counselling him on guitar for the last three years. Sandhu began by showing Sveinson the basics, like how to read music, but the boy caught on quick. "When he started bringing me riffs and songs and pieces that he was writing, all the traditional sort of teaching methods went out the door," notes the instructor. "Now it changes from week to week. This week he wanted to learn some Charlie Christian [jazz] solos."
Sandhu has privately guided hundreds of kids since becoming a guitar teacher in 1988. He calls Sveinson "supertalented" for his age, and feels that if he continues to progress at the current pace, he'll be nothing short of amazing by the time he's 16. "He's also got something that I haven't taught him," adds the 37-year-old, "and that's being able to perform in front of people, without being afraid. I don't know exactly where he learned that--maybe some old Hendrix videos or something."
Other likely influences on Sveinson's playing are visible in the wooden bookcase that stands against a wall behind his Fender DeVille amp. It's jammed tight with LPs, most of which were originally released when the budding guitar star was just a gleam in his father's eye. One glance along the alphabetically arranged titles hints at where the R'n'R Kid inherited his love of classic guitar-rock: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Bad Company, Blue Oyster Cult, Bowie, Cheap Trick, Clapton, Creedence. Darwin yanks out one of his all-time '70s faves, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's Next, and carefully unsheathes it from its plastic slipcover. There's no fear of its precious grooves ever getting smudged by his first-born's fingers, though. Nowadays, when he pilfers from his dad's vinyl stash, Danny goes straight for the Zeppelin.
In his upstairs bedroom, posters of guitar greats Angus Young and Stevie Ray Vaughan compete for wall space with race cars and hockey stars. A balalaika--a three-stringed Russian instrument--sits propped in a corner, and after a little urging from his pop Sveinson picks it up and coaxes the speedy lick from Rush's "Spirit of Radio" from it. He soon grows tired of the acoustic noodling, though, and starts leafing through one of the many Guitar World magazines lying around, stopping to pore over a gatefold colour shot of a vintage Rickenbacker. "I like Guitar Player," Sveinson points out, referring to another leading musician-oriented publication, "but these have the posters." When he comes across a green Gretsch DuoJet in a 1989 Guitar World issue with Allan Holdsworth on the cover, he instantly calls for his dad, who's become expert at extracting posters from the grip of 15-year-old staples.
Although the lad is clearly nutzoid about everything to do with guitars, he's also level-headed about the prospect of rock stardom. For one thing, mansions and limos aren't part of his mindset. "Naturally, I want to make money off it," he ponders. "I want to have a living. But I don't really care if I'm super rich. You look at guys like Colin James; they're not super rich, but they're not starving either."
Sveinson's most interested in advancing on his chosen instrument, and, with any luck, to someday "be as good or better than Jimi Hendrix". His mother, Gina, a Grade 7 teacher, is not surprised by how rapidly her charge's playing ability has progressed. "I've always said that I think it's in him," she explains, while offering a smoothie to a young visitor, an 11-year-old boy suffering from leukemia who's been invited over to hang out with Danny for the afternoon. "He watches and studies and learns more; he reads his guitar books page by page. We had a family weekend in Seattle, spent the entire day at the Hendrix Museum [inside the Experience Music Project], and it wasn't enough. So we'll go again and close the place down."
It was just two years ago that Sveinson first played in public, performing Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" at his elementary school's talent show. By March of 2004 he had became the youngest person to ever play the Commodore Ballroom, warming up for Colin James. Two months ago he flew out to Harlem, New York, to tape a performance on TV's Showtime at the Apollo, after which he jammed with guitar legend Les Paul at a Manhattan nightclub. In February he'll be headlining at Colorado's Next Snow extreme-snowboarding competition for youth aged nine to 13, which airs March 5 on NBC. A producer from NBC Sports is pushing to get Danny on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno three days earlier, to help promote the broadcast, and that type of publicity could be just what's needed to shoot the Rock and Roll Kid into the stratosphere. (His next Vancouver-area show is a performance at the First Night festivities on New Year's Eve in Whistler.)
But the question remains: could such a quick rise to fame backfire on a child so young? And what about the inherent dangers of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle? Are drugs and drink a concern at this point? "You gotta make sure you bring 'em up right and get away from that," relates Darwin. "But somebody well-connected in the music industry told me that it might be the best thing that he's so young, 'cause by the time he reaches that impressionable age where kids are doin' that kinda crap, he's already gonna know he doesn't have to. He'll be like, 'I've been making good music since I was 10. I don't need that.' Well, that's what I'm hopin', right."
If Darwin Sveinson could project his own rock 'n' roll fantasy onto his talented offspring, it would be to see him perform on-stage with none other than Eric Clapton. But his real dream for Danny goes deeper than trading licks with guitar gods. "You know who Hound Dog Taylor was?" he asks, referring to the Chicago blues great who succumbed to lung cancer in 1975. "Well, the night before he passed away he was on-stage. They used to help him out onto a stool on the stage, put the guitar in his lap, and he'd play and be smilin' and tappin' his feet the whole time. That's what I would like to see. If Danny's gonna be a musician, I'd like him to be a lifelong musician that just loves it till the day he dies."