Raw Talent: Guitarist Justin Saladino

His performance at this past summer’s Jazz Fest left thousands of Montrealers awestruck as he belted out a version of the late-great Jeff Healy’s See the Light on the outdoor Scène Loto- Québec. Few would contest that the Italian- Canadian teen is on his way to big things.

Raised in the quiet Montreal borough of Pierrefonds, music was spoon-fed to Justin from very early on. While parents Nat and Marisa Saladino are ultimately responsible for their only-child’s musical upbringing, the young guitarist began theoretical studies from the tender age of 6 under the tutelage of his uncle John Saladino, a seasoned veteran of the music industry. “My whole family got me into music; it was always around the house – Zeppelin, Elton John, Hendrix – all kinds of good classic rock.”

At age 9, Justin had already developed a natural affinity for the Blues, soon joining a band covering classic rock tunes from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin – not your typical third-grader. His real Blues epiphany came upon hearing his very first Hendrix cd, Are You Experienced. “I just thought: Wow! This guy’s amazing!” From that point on, his path seemed clear as day.

Justin was eventually discovered by his current agent Brian Slack: a family friend managed to get a DVD to him of Justin playing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Pride and Joy with his second band, Runaway Slide. For the next five years, Slack would book Justin and co. for music festivals all over Quebec and Ontario, including the coveted Mont-Tremblant Blues Fest four times.

In 2008, Justin got his first taste of the big leagues on tour in the US. “The highlight of my Runaway Slide period was without a doubt the time we performed at the Playing With Fire festival in Omaha, Nebraska. We were supposed to open for the legendary Jeff Healy, but he had sadly just passed away, so Frank Marino, who’s a Montreal legend with Mahogany Rush, replaced him. We got to open for him and talk backstage, which was really cool. Ricky Paquette was also on the bill, so it was an all-Montreal show in Omaha.” That’s right, he was 13 at the time.

In the past year, Justin has moved on to fronting the Justin Saladino Band, made up of himself on guitar and vocals, bassist Hans Blichert and drummer Khayman McColgan. The group’s music draws from different places; there are many influences. “I consider myself a Blues-influenced musician. I have a natural ability the play the Blues, but my musical taste lies everywhere; I listen to and write in all kinds of styles. Blues is really just a background.” His current favourite band is the Midwestern soul-rock duo The Black Keys. This past summer saw Justin reach another significant milestone in his budding career. “I was a special guest this year at the Montreal Jazz Fest with the Paul Deslauriers Band for the Guitar Explosion Series.We did two shows and I played one song per set, and was called back for the final encore jam. It was really overwhelming for me, because I had always gone to the Jazz Fest as a kid – always admiring artists’ performances and always dreaming of being on that stage, especially because it’s Montreal. Being there was just amazing – one of my huge goals realized.”

The young guitarist is currently in his final year of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School and plans on pursuing his studies by enrolling in Vanier College’s Music Department – Montreal’s best English-language pre-university musical option. “It’s not something I might necessarily require, but I really wouldn’t mind expanding my knowledge for guitar and music – it definitely wouldn’t hurt.”

Future aspirations? “I’d just like to make a living off of music. Even if it’s not to be rich and famous – what so many people dream of – music is something that I love to do so as long as I could make a living for myself, I’d be happy. Hopefully I could be well-known, play several important gigs and have a following, so many people could hear my music; as a songwriter that’s very important,” he modestly explains.

For now, Justin must take the next logical step in truly beginning his journey as a serious artist. “I’m planning on recording my debut album in December or January. I’ve been writing all summer and hope to record around 8-songs – that would be nice.” With over a decade of musical baggage under his belt, Justin Saladino cannot have gotten off to a better start. Only time will tell whether the humble teenager can be the next to achieve artistic stardom in a long line of Italian- Montrealers such as Gino Vannelli, Michel Pagliaro, Frank Marino, James Di Salvio, and Marco Calliari.

written by Adam Zara