- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
On a steamy Monday in July, an enthusiastic crowd packed into the Continental Club to catch a happy hour CD release party from Bastrop’s blues savants, the Peterson Brothers. While the oppressive evening heat seeped into the back of the club, the vibe by the front of the stage was cool and sweet as 18-year-old Glenn and 16-year-old Alex Peterson segued easily from wicked, funky break beats to slow jazzy jams, rich with nuance and silky tones.
Both brothers have remarkable range and instrumental prowess, and the chemistry between them conjures musical magic. They lean into each other’s grooves, following as songs detour into lengthy breakdowns peppered with hints of familiar riffs — Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” and Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” popped up at the CD release party. Then they explode into a barrage of bass pops, unexpected harmonics or technically astounding guitar licks.
“Some people ask us what our favorite song that we play is,” Glenn said a few weeks after the party, sitting with his brother in the conference room of the Bastrop car dealership where their father works. It’s a hard question to answer. “For me the whole night is a journey,” he said.
No two sets are the same. The brothers push each other to explore different musical ideas, using visual cues to signal stops and starts to the rotating cast of top-notch Austin drummers who back them up.
The Petersons first played the Continental Club in 2012, when one of those drummers, Michael Hale, vouched for a couple kids he knew to fill a spot in the venue’s small gallery space upstairs. According to the club’s publicist, Dianne Scott, the brothers, then 15 and 13 “impressed the hell out of everybody.”
“It wasn’t just the talent; it was their attitude. It was their gratitude … there was just a really special aura about them,” she said.
The Petersons have no formal training. “Nobody in our family plays music or anything like that,” Glenn said. After runs at youth soccer and basketball, music was just “something we wanted to try,” he said. Their parents were supportive from the beginning.
Both brothers started on violin, but by the time Glenn was 12 he had moved on to guitar and 10-year-old Alex was on bass. They were exposed to popular music growing up, but as musicians, their biggest influences came from four old records they stumbled across cleaning out a shed one day, dusty gems by Earth, Wind and Fire, the Isley Brothers, B.B. King and the Brothers Johnson. The records, scored by their mother and grandma at garage sales years earlier, became the Petersons’ song books. They spent hours listening to the albums, breaking down guitar riffs and bass lines, teaching themselves how to play.
From there, they started searching out YouTube videos of old live performances. “A lot of times I would see guys sitting in with each other on videos or doing records together,” Glenn said. Researching the guest artists’ bodies of work broadened their canon. Glenn was just starting junior high and Alex was still in grade school. Scholastics came first, but their spare time was consumed by tracing the careers of the blues greats. They studied performances of artists Albert Collins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Johnny Copeland, Lightning Hopkins and Freddie King. They tried to emulate their sounds and incorporate aspects of the elder artists’ showmanship into their own performances.
Shortly after their impressive debut at the Continental Club, owner Steve Wertheimer offered the brothers a residency in the Gallery. By summer, they had moved to the club’s main room for the Monday happy hour. Landing the gig was instrumental to their artistic development. “It’s one of those rooms you play and you’re just instantly comfortable,” Glenn said.
Over the next three years the brothers’ talent blossomed. They were shy at first but rapidly opened up, developing a loose rapport and an easygoing stage presence. In the beginning, Glenn handled all the vocal duties, but recently, Alex has been working on his pipes, too. After early days spent reworking standards, they began to develop a body of original work.
Their self-titled debut was produced by Michael Freeman, who took home a Grammy for his work on “Joined at the Hip,” a collaboration between Pinetop Perkins and Blind Willie Johnson. Freeman met the brothers when they performed at a birthday party for Perkins shortly before Perkins died. The album’s a snappy mix of covers and smooth, groovy originals. Crowds at the weekly Continental Club gig swelled as they ramped up to the release this summer.
“Mondays with the Petersons have turned into an event,” Scott said, noting there’s even been some crossover, with fans of longtime Monday marquee act Dale Watson showing up early to take in the Petersons. Members of Watson’s band also have taken to arriving at the gig in time to catch the end of the Petersons’ set, she said.
Scott has vivid memories of watching another young blues artist mature at the Continental Club — and she’s trying to persuade anyone who will listen it’s happening again. “I’ve been telling people for three years, ‘Hey, I told you about Gary Clark Jr. I’m telling you now — they’re of the same ilk,’” she said.
A little over a year ago, when Clark was on a break from the international festival circuit, he stopped by the club. Scott jokingly told him to watch his back because the Peterson Brothers were coming for him. “He looked over his shoulder and said, ‘I can feel them breathing on my neck,’” she said.
The Peterson Brothers are incredibly humble. Glenn is getting ready for his freshman year at Huston-Tillotson, while Alex will be a junior at Bastrop High. The younger Peterson had just finished an afternoon at band camp when we met. He swears he’s not a big shot, but he’ll be showing off his bass chops in the front ensemble of the Bastrop High Marching Band this fall. At the car dealership, their father’s colleagues treated them like rock stars, popping in to sing their praises and catch the latest stories from a recent East Coast tour. “They’re such good kids,” is a constant refrain.
“Their thankfulness alone is worth the cost of any admission because when they say ‘Thank you’ they really mean it,” Scott said.
Music is their heart and soul.
“I remember when we were little, I think you wanted to be the doctor and I wanted to be the scientist,” Glenn said, smiling at his little brother across the table. “Now we can’t imagine our lives without this.”