The first time I meet The Peterson Brothers, life just dealt them a pair of crushing blows. That morning, their father lost his cousin; a man he says was always more like a brother to him than extended family. Just four days before that, Glenn and Alex were faced with the sudden passing of their grandmother, the matriarch of the family and one of their first and most loyal fans.
It’s one of those weeks that would send an ordinary person into self-imposed seclusion. But as I quickly learn, the Peterson Brothers are far from ordinary. Their tireless dedication to the mastery of their craft, the otherworldly connection they have to each other, their love of traditional blues played over a funk groove – all speak volumes about who they are and what they’re about. But perhaps nothing speaks more to the resiliency of their spirit than how they handle what, for most, would have been life-halting grief. After 36 hours of sleepless heartache, the most natural thing for them to do was to simply play their Sunday morning gig at church. “She was looking forward to that, it’s what she would have wanted,” they tell me – as if staying in bed sobbing was an indulgence which never so much as occurred to them.
Watching them do their thing in a small, dimly-lit cocktail lounge on Rainey Street, this decision starts to make sense. At just 17 and 20 years old, Alex and Glenn already emanate an ease and finesse that is rarely attained by any means other than time and experience. Conversely, they radiate such genuine, organic wholesomeness that I immediately feel protective of them; their motives remain pure, despite spending the last six years of their lives in one of the most cutthroat industries in the world. Their family has a lot to do with that.
When I meet them after their set, the brothers are humble, polite, and wholeheartedly authentic. Even more telling is my introduction to their parents, a couple who has made the boys’ career their full-time job. Along with their management team in New York, momager Deanna oversees much of their day-to-day schedule and bookings. As the boys tell it, “she is the only reason we know where to go each day.” She is also inadvertently responsible for their discovery of music.
When they were kids, Glenn and Alex explain, their mother and grandmother used to love to go to garage sales. One of the many treasures that made its way back to the Peterson home after one such trip was a box of old records. At the time of its arrival, their main interest was still in sports – music had yet to make its way onto their radar. But that forgotten box of sonic discovery lay in waiting. So one day they went to the box and pulled out four records they’d never heard before – The Isley Brothers and Brothers Johnson were selected for their obvious nod to the brother team that was now forming; B.B. King and Earth, Wind & Fire were just pure blind luck.
And so they began – not The Peterson Brothers Band, not yet, but their musical journey. Ten-year-old Alex took up the violin while Glenn, at just twelve, set out to master the guitar. Their first gig was, fittingly, at church; a performance of “Amazing Grace” that still frequently makes its way into their set list.
On a rowdy Monday night at the historic Continental Club, “Amazing Grace” initially seems like an odd choice. The crowd is loud and rambunctious, and seems intent on dancing, drinking, and debauching their work day away. Yet when Alex slides his violin from its case and the opening notes permeate the air, a hush falls over the crowd; we become rapt devotees of their choir. The sincerity with which they deliver this gospel staple, and the intricate instrumentals that accompany it, make this an altogether different rendition than I have ever heard from a song I know so well. It is a truly spiritual moment shared among strangers who are starting to feel like family.
It’s clear from the way they perform together that they practice a lot, but even I am surprised to learn that they play music together every single day. Perusing their upcoming tour schedule, I wonder when the Peterson Brothers have time to do anything else. They play well-attended weekly residencies in some of Austin’s most respected venues, jam with their heroes on stage at Antone’s, and have been included on the bill of some of the country’s most popular blues and music festivals. While this is a life most people only dream of, it is nonetheless one that ends up eating at its champions. Justin Timberlake recently described the experience as a Groundhog Day-themed circus, telling The Hollywood Reporter that “after the 125th show, you feel debilitated.” All too often, the initial excitement of the road wears off and the repetitive monotony of tour life ends up being less than the glamourous adventure that was once imagined.
The Peterson brothers don’t see it that way, though. “We have the same skeleton of songs that we play, but we still never play the exact same thing twice.” In this way the material, the music, the adventure – it never gets stale. And this simple mantra, if you can call it that, is difficult to execute for most. It’s another simple act of fate, faith or coincidence stepping in and guiding them towards their ultimate destiny. Because the beautiful, malleable, fluid, ever-changing shape of blues music simply doesn’t allow its subjects to become stagnant.
Despite seeming too well-mannered, too sincere, and too unfazed to be six-year veterans of one of the world’s most talented and saturated music scenes, their humility is one thing I cannot bring myself to question. They have opened for some of the greatest musicians of all time – B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Willie Nelson – and have shared an Antone’s stage with one of the most heralded guitar players in Texas, Mr. Gary Clark Jr. And yet, they still don’t view themselves that way, at that level. In fact, they flat-out refuse to play a game in which we do exactly this.
“Oh no, no, I can’t do that. No. I wouldn’t want my heroes opening for me, no.” This is Glenn’s response to my favorite game, “Build your dream line-up”. You get to headline the show of your dreams, while four of your favorite bands – living, dead, bygone, invented – open for you. There are no limits but your own imagination. Unless, of course, you’re The Peterson Brothers, and that’s just not the way you imagine things.
So I try a new angle – who would they open for if time, money, and reality were no object? Given that they’ve already toured in support of two of the most famous and influential blues musicians to ever slay the game, I don’t expect there to be much left on that bucket list. But Glenn and Alex proceed to throw out enough names for at least a two-day festival, and in all honesty, it’s pretty much my dream lineup. They would open, of course, then spend the remainder of the day(s) catching all the shows they’ve always dreamed of seeing. As they build their list, it is abundantly clear that since that box of garage sale records made it into their life, they’ve been doing their homework.
Alex begins, reminding me again that he and his brother would play first, followed by Stevie Wonder, Prince, and the P. Funk formation of the late 70’s and early 80’s (referring to the George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic in its heyday). He takes a long pause to ponder his fourth and final choice, as even this imaginary lineup deserves to have careful attention paid to its curation. I ask Glenn to list a few of his while Alex whittles down his final candidates, and he quickly rattles through the list of mentors that shaped his own guitar style – Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, Brothers Johnson, and D’Angelo during the Voodoo Tour. Alex nods in agreement – it’s a stellar lineup.
Glenn does the majority of the talking for the pair, politely answering my questions and smiling at the simple beauty of life; or so it seems. Alex, by contrast, mostly listens and nods; you get the sense that these two are nearly always on the same page. His quiet contributions, though, are in themselves captivating. Despite how little he actually says, his presence speaks volumes about the driving force within him. Those nods, the way he tilts his head to listen, even a slight shift of weight in his chair all suggest that he is perpetually playing along to a funky, rhythmic, secret groove in his head that only Alex can hear. I strain to pick up even the slightest hint of what it might be, hoping that perhaps just a note could slip out one of his ears – but I can’t. And yet, it still makes me want to dance.
Less than an hour later, I’m doing exactly that. The Continental Club has quickly filled with an eclectic mix of fans, family, and fellow music lovers. The Peterson Brothers, having been released from the arduous task of talking about themselves, are now back on stage where they feel most at home. It occurs to me that while many people refer to the term “stage presence” to describe the alternate persona that artists take under the spotlight, The Peterson Brothers may deem it necessary to coin a phrase that applies to anything you have to do in life that doesn’t allow you to hold an instrument while doing it.
It’s hard to describe exactly what makes them so special on stage, or why you can’t help but smile when you watch them play. Sure, they are naturally magnetic, exceptionally talented, and surprisingly accessible. At just 17 years old, Alex lays down bass grooves as if he himself invented funk. He attacks the strings with the ferocity and intensity of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, yet emits the same carefree, multi-dimensional ease that most of us associate with B.B. King playing the guitar. And despite being one of the most mild-mannered people I have ever met, Glenn seems to embody no one on stage so much as the inimitable Jimi Hendrix. Every move he makes, every held note, even the way he holds her leave no room for question – he and his guitar are one.
Their utter devotion to sharing the joy their instruments give them oozes out of every step they take – especially when they step in sync, in a nod to the ageless guitar showmanship of ZZ Top. But what really seals the deal is when they both hop off stage, still playing, and begin weaving through the audience. I search the crowd for Glenn, who seems to have disappeared. I spot him just in time to see him glide out the front door of The Continental Club to play to the bustling traffic of South Congress. Their set is now just halfway over.
As with many of the blues greats, this live experience is the result of the freedom to simply play; instrumental experimentation is where they are really allowed to shine. Given this propensity for a surprise bit of magic, it makes sense that The Peterson Brothers recently opted to cut their first live album. As they said earlier – no song is ever played the same way, so the potential for capturing something unique and extraordinary is always there. Recorded at Continental Club last year, this is their first foray into co-producing, and they relish that effort with the same enthusiasm they apply to their electric live shows. The process is particularly exciting for Glenn, who is currently studying audio engineering.
“We hope to have the live album ready in the next month, and hopefully our next studio album in the next year” he muses when I ask him about the future. Always humble, he proceeds to immediately give credit to his mentor at Arlen studios for helping him wade through the brain-bending act of producing a live album. They both agree they are blessed to even be included in the process. Never ones to take anything for granted, they are continuously thankful of every family member, fan, mentor, headliner, hero, and friend that has been a part of their journey.
As we are making our way back to the Continental Club that night, Alex suddenly turns to Glenn and asks if he remembers that infamous garage sale box also contained a compilation from Bad Boy Records, along with some Judas Priest albums. “Can you imagine if we’d have pulled those out?” Glenn pauses for a moment, perhaps contemplating an alternate life in which he played metal guitar, or rapped over pre-produced beats. With the same casual air of a life guided by serendipitous acts of the universe, he simply answers “Nah… I think I’m too shy to be a rapper.”