The lightning-quick hands — gifts from his late father — race perfectly across the electric guitar's strings.
His voice is as smooth as 10 miles of new road and large in all the right spots — it can capture and hold the audience in any arena.
Saying he's gifted doesn't give Moline native Austin Vallejo enough credit, maybe 'star-bound' works better.
It is 6:05 a.m. on a warmish July morning, and I'm locked in, watching Kiefer Sutherland - yes, that Kiefer Sutherland - beautifully drive the video "Can't Stay Away.''
To Sutherland's left is Vallejo on vocals and guitar, working gracefully with the superstar actor, who if he gave up the acting gig could easily make a living as a full-time musician. Sutherland, as I see it, is that good.
So is Vallejo.
Today, as part of a 100-show tour with Sutherland's band, Vallejo is playing Belfast, Ireland, and the huge Farmers Bash Festival. Despite occasional road weariness, Vallejo is enjoying every minute of life on the road.
"This year feels like the never-ending tour as we’ve been on the road for must of it,'' Vallejo said in an email response from Scotland, just before leaving for Belfast. "We’re playing over 100 shows across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. We’ve got a few more weeks in Europe before I head home to Los Angeles to start recording some of my own new material with producer/engineer Jim Scott (Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Dixie Chicks, Wilco, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wildflowers, the list goes on ...). Then I link back up with Kiefer and head to Europe in October for a few weeks.''
Vallejo found an acoustic guitar belonging to mother, Barbara, sitting in the back of a closet during a game of hide-and-seek. With her help, he took his first musical steps before age 10.
He was a natural.
"The first song she ever taught me was “My Sweet Lady” by John Denver,'' Vallejo said. "I took lessons at McKay Music in Moline, where we ended up trading the acoustic guitar in for an electric one. I grew up in the 90’s grunge era listening to bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, etc. It was a great time to learn how to play. Then my dad, Arlo, introduced me to Santana, Eric Clapton, Earth Wind & Fire, and War. My love for soul/R&B music stemmed from him.''
Vallejo, it should be noted, was the kid who fit in everywhere, but nowhere growing up. Athletically there was nothing he could not do, excelling in baseball. But he also loved music and theater. He even toured with Kermit Wells and the famous Moline Boys Choir.
He was a starter on Moline's super-sectional baseball squad in 2003, but also gained all-state honors in choir and played the leading role in Moline High School-produced musicals Godspell, Grease and The Phantom.
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There was even a paid musical gig while in high school. The one that could not be discussed at the time.
"A bar in the Village of East Davenport called Little B’s,'' Vallejo said of his first pro stint. "I guess you could say I’ve been at it professionally for about 17 years (he played the saloon at age 16). I was too young to play there, but somebody phoned in a favor and made it happen. I’m not sure that place exists anymore. I think it’s a Rudy’s Tacos now.''
In high school, though, Vallejo would make contact with East Moline's Jude Cole, the famous singer, songwriter and producer, who was home for a family reunion. Cole was related to Tom Bollaert, a pal of Vallejo's, who had Vallejo play a few songs for Cole.
That meeting would eventually play a role in Vallejo's big break in the music business. Before music became is full-time occupation there was a short run through Texas Christian University to study vocal performance.
"That ended up being more of an expensive vacation as I spent more of my time discovering the Dallas/Ft. Worth music scene rather than studying,'' Vallejo said, noting after leaving Texas, he returned to the Quad-Cities and played local clubs. "I ended up teaming up with local artist Tim Stop and embarked on my first acoustic tour with him. I definitely caught the travel bug and got a glimpse of the life I knew I ultimately wanted — writing, performing, touring and sharing music with new people in different cities every night.''
In 2012, another local pal called Cole on Vallejo's behalf.
"Tom Ebalo made the call in 2012 for me to go visit Jude at his studio in Los Angeles,'' Vallejo said. "At the time I was considering moving to New York, Austin or L.A. as they all have prominent music scenes. The visit to Jude in L.A. was the most promising of the three, so I sold everything I couldn’t fit into the backseat of my car and moved out West.''
What Vallejo didn't know at the time was Cole and Sutherland had been friends for years and owned Los Angeles-based Ironworks Records.
"Kiefer had some songs he had written to try and place with other artists,'' Vallejo said. "In the midst of writing and demoing the songs, Jude convinced Kiefer he should keep the songs for himself and release his own album. That was all unfolding around the time I was working with Jude on my own music. We put my project on pause when Jude asked if I’d like to spearhead Kiefer’s band and get some real road experience. It didn’t take much to convince me once I heard the music and saw all the amazing places we’d be visiting.''
Humble to a fault — he gets that from his parents — Vallejo says he is fortunate to be where he is and speaks glowingly of the superstar he works next to.
"Kiefer is one of those people with countless aces up his sleeve,'' Vallejo explained. "Most of the songs on both of his albums are either written or co-written by him. He’s a natural when it comes to singing and has an amazing texture to his voice that translates incredibly well for the story-telling aspect of each song. When he picks up a guitar, it’s obvious he’s been playing for years. The proof is all there in the music and the live show. Celebrity aside, he’s an amazing human who uses his platform in the best possible way one could imagine. I’ve been able to witness his process and can genuinely say that he’s one of the most thoughtful, hard-working people I know.''
And the future?
"We played in Chicago and various other Midwestern cities earlier this year.,'' Vallejo said. "We don’t have any upcoming dates confirmed for the Q-C area but keep an eye out on www.kiefersutherland.net for updates. I’m shooting for early next year to come back for a visit and hopefully a solo show. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be as a musician and an artist. I know that fancying myself any more (or less for that matter) than I am is a waste of time. My parents instilled the golden rule into me pretty well. I try my best to keep my head down, keep working hard and stop every now and then to enjoy the progress made.''
The progress I am sure will lead to stardom.
Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309 757 8388 or firstname.lastname@example.org