IT’S HAPPY HOUR at Austin’s Continental Club. Over the decades, this early evening time slot has boasted some of Austin’s best musicians, often playing for little or no cover. Toni Price led an acoustic session featuring a rotating cast of great guitar pickers, including Rich Brotherton of Robert Earl Keen’s band and Austin studio ace Casper Rawls. More recently, ex-Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert fronted the country band Haybale, which in various incarnations has included Asleep at the Wheel steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, Hot Club of Cowtown fiddler Elana Fremerman, Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball and Junior Brown drummer Tom Lewis.
On this particular mid-summer Monday, honky-tonk hero Dale Watson will be arriving at 10 p.m. for his regular evening set in front of the familiar red curtain. But at the moment, the Peterson Brothers Band, consisting of brothers Glenn Jr. and Alex Peterson on guitar and bass, respectively, is hard at work keeping the blues alive, with help from legendary drummer Barry “Frosty” Smith.
The band is knee-deep in an extended jam on the Meters’ early ‘70s New Orleans funk classic “Cissy Strut.” Glenn Jr. has his back to the crowd, facing off with Frosty, working the groove, switching effortlessly between tightly coiled rhythm and scratchy lead while Alex holds down the bottom with a funky old-school snap.
A Junior Wells Chicago blues standard, “Messin’ with the Kid,” follows, updated to include more contemporary R&B and jazz-rock licks. Although the club is beginning to fill, with a few couples testing their luck on the dance floor, the playing maintains a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness quality, as if the brothers are back at the crib in Bastrop trading notes in their living room.
Albert Collins’ “If You Love Me Like You Say” brings the heart of Texas into the mix and employs a tighter arrangement, with Glenn Jr. singing soulfully and tossing off stinging solo licks as Alex rocks in rhythm beside him, his brown eyes fixed on his brother’s beaming face, completely cued in to his every move. The set closes with Muddy Waters’ emblematic “Got My Mojo Workin’,” taken at a barn-burning tempo with solos all around, including a whirlwind, rock star-worthy drum break from Frosty and a Bootzilla-style display of thumb-popping virtuosity from Alex. The crowd, which has swelled to include curious onlookers drawn in off the street, enthusiastically expresses its approval as a tip jar circulates.
Grinning broadly, Glenn Jr. takes the microphone in hand. “There’s a couple of people in the room I’d like to thank,” he says. “That’s my parents sitting back there in the corner at the end of the bar.” It’s a savvy move, given that he and his brother may need a ride home. Glenn Peterson Jr. is 17 years old; Alex is 14 and an incoming freshman at Bastrop High School. (Frosty, whose recording credits range from Lee Michaels and George Clinton in the 1960s and ‘70s to Austin sessions with Roky Erickson, Eric Johnson, W.C. Clark and Delbert McClinton, among others, is a good half-century ahead of them. If his parents are there, he doesn’t mention it.)
The Peterson Brothers Band was voted best Under-18 band in the 2013 Austin Music Awards, where the award was presented by the great Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who was in Austin to perform at SXSW. But it’s perhaps of more significance to the band, which has been playing the Continental on Mondays for about a year now, that they also placed sixth for Best Blues/Soul/Funk Band, and Alex placed sixth for Best Bass. These kids are dancing with the big boys.
“That was a surprise, that we won the award,” says Glenn Jr. “I think my mom put it on Facebook that we were nominated, but it’s not like we asked people to vote for us or anything. So when we won, I was like, ‘What?’ I think it’s pretty unusual for a blues band to win in the Under-18 category. And to be introduced by Bernie Worrell — that was amazing.”
Glenn Jr. and Alex have been making music together almost as long as they can remember. They started taking piano lessons at the same time, a few months before Glenn Jr. picked up the guitar and Alex chose the violin — before switching primarily to bass. Like many African- American musicians of earlier generations, their first public performances involved playing gospel music at church. But at home, they were secretly soaking up the influences of their parents’ largely forgotten B.B. King records, along with ‘70s soul, funk and jazz such as George Benson and Earth, Wind & Fire.
“If you’d told me five years ago we’d be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Glenn Peterson Sr., the boys’ father, allows. “We had the gospel thing going in church. One day I said to Glenn Jr., ‘Hey, man, give me a little guitar intro on “This Little Light of Mine.” He pulled out this blues lick, and I said, ‘Whoa, where did you learn that?’ He said, ‘Dad, we’ve been listening to the blues all along.’ It all just blossomed from there.”
The band’s mission, expressed on their website and business cards: “Keepin’ the Blues Alive.”
“It’s important to me,” says Glenn Jr., who, as the older brother, does most of the talking. “The blues isn’t only the heritage of our people but the heritage of our country’s contemporary music. We both listen to the blues all the time. But we also listen to music outside of blues, primarily soul and jazz artists from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s.”
Over the past few years, the Peterson Brothers have met and sometimes been invited to jam with a number of heavyweight blues, R&B and jazz musicians, including the late Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke, Buddy Guy, Los Lonely Boys and Robert Cray. In July, they traveled to Indianola, Miss., to perform at B.B. King’s Homecoming Festival, where they got to meet the King himself. On the way back, they stopped in Shreveport, La., where they jammed with drummer Brady Blade, best known in these parts for his work with Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, who owns a record- ing studio in Shreveport.
A few years back, when Glenn Jr. was 13 and Alex was 11, they performed at Pinetop Perkins’ 97th birthday bash at Antone’s. After the set, they were introduced to Chicago-based record producer Michael Freeman, who won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album this year for the posthumously released Joined at the Hip by Pinetop and his longtime Muddy Waters bandmate, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Freeman subsequently has agreed to produce the Peterson Brothers’ debut album, due out sometime next year.
In a career that dates back about 40 years, the British-born Freeman has produced an estimated 60 albums for a long list of blues labels including Telarc, Alligator, Blind Pig, Code Blue, Evidence and Shanachie. He obviously heard something he was looking for in the Peterson Brothers
“First, there’s how technically proficient they are for their age,” he says. “I’ve watched audiences in so many different places react to them. They made a huge impression at the Chicago Blues Festival. Also, one thing we face in the blues world is the lack of new artists. I’m excited to bring two young African-American musicians into the field and allow them to play the blues their way. I’ve recorded a lot of the older blues musicians. Now I want to focus on younger musicians.
He notes that older blues musicians — not only black musicians, but especially black musicians — have been extremely supportive of the Peterson Brothers’ mission.
“They’re often pleasantly surprised,” Freeman says. “For a long time, black families looked down on the blues. It wasn’t looked upon as a positive musical force. They’ve been willing to stretch out their arms and say, ‘We’ll help you.’ Pinetop and Willie absolutely adored the boys.”
Freeman is currently scouting out recording studios and hunting for appropriate cover material that the brothers can make their own, while Glenn Jr. is writing original material yet to be introduced into the band’s live sets. “They’re very close,” Freeman says, “to being ready to start recording.”
In October, the Peterson Brothers are booked to play the ACL Festival in Austin and then travel to Helena, Ark., to play the King Biscuit Blues Festival. They’ll then cross the river to play a special concert at the Hopson Plantation outside of Greenville, Miss., the birthplace of Pinetop Perkins. In honor of their growing reputation, the city of Austin has officially proclaimed Oct. 3 “Peterson Brothers Day.”
One issue that must be resolved is the lack of full-time drummer. Eddie Flores, a veteran Austin drummer who’d been performing regularly with the band at the Continental Club, died unexpectedly earlier this year. Since his death, Glenn Jr. and Alex have had the opportunity to play with a number of Austin’s best drummers — Frosty, Michael Hales, Brannon Temple, Ernie Durawa. But if they’re going out of town to promote an album, Freeman says they’ll need a permanent drummer.
Deanna Peterson, the boys’ mother as well as manager, agrees, but says they’re in no rush. “We all believe this journey is guided by divine intervention, and when that time comes for them to have a drummer, we’ll know it, because it will be the perfect fit. We just want to let it happen naturally and at the right time, like everything else on this musical journey.”
So far, Deanna and Glenn Sr. have been taking care of business for the Peterson Brothers Band, including bookings, travel arrangements, promotion and endorsements. But they’re aware the time is coming when they’ll need to bring in someone with a professional background to handle management responsibilities.
“We’re open to that,” says Deanna. “I don’t really look at myself as their manager. We’re just doing what parents do. I just want to make sure that whoever they’re working with has their best interests at heart. With us, it’s not about the fame and fortune. It’s about the music. They’re doing what they love, playing the music they love. This is their art. That’s why it’s been easy for us so far. We’re just being supportive parents — so long as they keep their grades up.”
Glenn Sr. thinks the fact that his sons got into music so early has helped them stay focused through adolescence. An older brother, Quincy, plays tuba and recently graduated from UT-Austin with a degree in business management. “They’re good boys,” says Glenn Sr. “They don’t drink or hang around with a bad crowd. And the older musicians like [bassist] Bob Strozier have warned them, ‘Don’t let me catch you drinking or messing around.’”
The blues originated in a specific historical and cultural context — in the agricultural South early in the 20th Century, and in gritty inner-city neighborhoods after World War II — during a time of strict segregation for many African-Americans. It was an expression of suffering, and of survival, and it was largely shunned by later generations of blacks as popular music evolved into rhythm and blues, soul, funk and hip-hop, reflecting the enormous cultural changes produced by the Civil Rights Movement, black pride and the possibility of commercial crossover success with white pop audiences.
For this reason, younger musicians and music fans — and by “younger” we now mean anyone who came of age in the ‘60s or later — most intent on “keeping the blues alive” tend to be white. By locating the blues within the vibrant rhythmic spectrum of black music that includes soul, funk and jazz, the Peterson Brothers have the potential not only to help keep the blues form alive, but to reinvigorate its ancient spirit.
“There’s some guitarists who can play lead, but they can’t play rhythm,” says Alex. “To play rhythm, you have to listen to the other musicians.”
Asked how it’s possible for him to write and sing songs that embody a form born in a time and place very different from 21st Century America, Glenn Jr. replies, “I listen to people. Just like I’m a good listener when I’m playing music, I listen to people when they talk, and I put myself in other people’s experiences. That’s where I get the inspiration for my songs.”
The blues are alive. Long live the blues.