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If there were windows in Joe's Grotto, they'd be steamed up tonight. Almost 400 people are packed into the small Phoenix club, fanning themselves with magazines and ordering extra ice with every drink. The crowd's getting restless, jockeying for position near the stage and chatting away excitedly. Proprietor Joe Grotto wades through the throng, schmoozing all the way, before he gets onstage and cuts through the cacophony with his booming announcer voice. "Let's hear it for Nick Sterling! He's the future of our shit!"
Sterling gets that a lot. He's always "the future of" something. The hundreds of people packed like sardines into this smoky club are sweating it out just to see him, the guitar virtuoso who's opened for acts like Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Peter Frampton, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Kid Rock, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Tesla. Sterling's gotten props from everyone from Traffic co-founder Dave Mason to legendary thumb-picking guitarist Thom Bresh. To date, he's recorded two albums of original material and played more than 300 shows.
Not bad for a kid who's all of 14 years old.
Onstage, Sterling's a consummate performer. With his long blond tresses and Steven Tyler smile, he already looks like a rock star. He works the crowd, switches guitars every couple of songs, and plays solos down on one knee with his guitar upright. During his second set, Sterling performs a five-minute solo that drifts seamlessly into "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Sterling's bandmates, bassist Billy Henson and drummer Eric Bongiorno, are more than twice his age, and the fans walking around the club in Nick Sterling tee shirts were probably his age in the '60s or '70s. But the age gap between Sterling and his audience doesn't bother him. "I enjoy playing music for them, and they seem to be enjoying watching me play," he says. Besides, he's been playing in bars for too long to be fazed by the adult scene anymore.
Nick Sterling's immersion in music began when he was 7. The Lake Havasu City native asked his parents for a guitar for his sixth birthday, but didn't show much interest in playing it until the following year. He learned his first chords from his father, Jim, who says Nick's skills quickly surpassed his own. "Hearing his effortless ability to learn any piece of music he came across, in a very short amount of time from a very young age, made me realize he had something special," says Jim.
Sterling's natural ability was also noticed by Fender, which offered him a string endorsement the same year he started to take guitar lessons. Sterling picked up other instruments, too, beginning with upright bass, which he still plays in his school symphony orchestra.
Because of his ability to compose complex instrumentals in a short period of time (Sterling says he's written some of his songs in as little as 10 minutes), critics and fans have likened Sterling's musical aptitude to that of Mozart. Jim Sterling says his son could listen to a song once and play it back. To this day, Sterling never writes down his songs. "I read music for bass clef with my upright bass, but I do most of my stuff by ear," Sterling says.
Sterling started out playing local gigs with an otherwise all-adult band called Attitude Cat before striking out on his own and forming the three-piece Nick Sterling Band. He released his first solo CD of all-original material, the aptly titled Ten, when he was 10 years old. By that time, he'd already had corporate sponsorship.
"When I was 8, I was endorsed by Fender musical instruments. I was fired when I was 9," Sterling says. "I don't like to sign things with companies that I work with, because then I'm limited to just using their equipment."
"We learned our lesson," says his mother, Jo Ann Sterling. "We don't sign contracts with anybody."
For now, that includes the major labels that have come sniffing around Sterling's self-produced second album, tentatively titled Life Goes On, which the Sterlings plan to sell through Nick's Web site, www.nicksterling.com. "We don't want anybody trying to change Nick, or change what he's trying to do musically," says Jo Ann. "He needs to be able to do his own thing."
Sterling's "own thing" is surprising. For someone born in 1990, the year before Nirvana's Neverminddetonated and left a mushroom cloud of grunge, Sterling's a startling '70s throwback. While most 14-year-olds are struggling to learn the riffs of bands like Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit, Sterling nails the solos of Eddie Van Halen, Tony Iommi, Randy Rhoads, Ritchie Blackmore, Slash, and Jimi Hendrix with amazing aplomb. "I like the production of newer music, but I don't really like the songs as much," Sterling says. "They seem too simple. Classic rock tends to keep me more interested in the music."
But Sterling's not just emulating a gaggle of guitar gods. He's a perfectionist with his own material, most of which he records in his bedroom/studio using a 32-track recorder and Pro Tools. His myriad originals blend the guitar-rock sound of the '70s with the flamboyancy and energy of '80s heavy metal. On his second CD, Sterling plays all of the instruments and sings all of the vocals. For now, he can still hit high notes, but his voice is in transition.
Sterling himself seems to be in transition, too, a teenager teetering on the brink of a musical breakout. He plays gigs to packed houses almost every other weekend. He's touring and recording more than ever. For the past year and a half, a film crew from Simon Barron Productions has been following him around, shooting footage for a documentary titled Catch Me If You Can. There's a sense within the Sterling camp that something's got to give.
So Jo Ann quit her job last year to work full-time on her son's music career. She says she's considering whether Nick, who graduated as "Outstanding Student of the Year" at Mesa's Poston Junior High School in May, should even go to school full-time next year.
Sterling says music is "all that I really think I was meant to do," even if he did entertain the thought of being an engineer before the math turned him off. "I like playing live, I like performing, and I like to travel," says Sterling.
Outside of music and school, Sterling tries to be a typical teenager. He likes to ride his bike, play basketball, swim, play hacky sack, and juggle. He likes mozzarella sticks. He collects stuffed penguins, which sit on shelves in his room, tucked between books of guitar tablature and trophies from music competitions.
Sterling really sees himself as just a regular young guy -- even if he seems 40 from the forearms down -- and he shies away from accolades of his genius. When Fox 10 News recently broadcast a lengthy spot on Sterling, he came home from school the next day, upset that so many of his classmates had seen it. Sterling says, "I try to keep the music separate from school, because I don't want to be treated differently."
Still, people line up after Sterling's shows to meet him and lavish him with praise. They buy merchandise and get him to sign everything. After all, they say, those autographed early Nick Sterling albums might be worth a lot of money someday.