In Greektown, East Baltimore, the blues are alive and well. There may be more than 25 years between them, but local guitarists Pete Kanaras and Robert Frahm share an equal passion for traditional blues from Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago.
They live two houses apart in what they’ve coined “the compound,” adjacent row-homes with a joint backyard, where the generation gap is just a technicality.Pete, 54, has been a mentor and friend to Robert for more than ten years. The younger bluesman is now 27.
“Robert, in my opinion, is keeping the real blues tradition alive,” says Pete. “He has done his homework and has taken no shortcuts at all. I know that for a fact because I and a few others made damn sure he didn’t take any shortcuts. We mentored him, and it was pure pleasure.”
The respect between them is mutual.
“[Pete] is an incredible guitarist,” says Robert. “And he was always willing to show me a lick.”
“They’re both superb musicians and great guys,” says Glenn Moomau, who plays harmonica with both guitarists regularly.
Glenn first saw Pete play with the Nighthawks in Washington, D.C. over ten years ago, and has been playing with him regularly ever since. For the past two years, he’s been playing with Robert and is always impressed.
“[Robert] just gets better all the time,” says Glenn. “He’ll be world famous some day.”
The timelessness of traditional blues puts Pete and Robert on common ground. Both cite B. B. King as their supreme influence, and both realized their love of the blues in their early teens. Pete can pin down the specific moment when the blues hit him hard.“It was Roy Buchanan’s PBS special, The Greatest Unknown Guitarist in the World, in ’71 when I was 14. That’s when I knew.”
Pete’s family, who owned a diner in upstate New York, discouraged him from pursuing music as a career.
He went to culinary school to respect his family’s wishes, but he never put down the guitar. He took off with the instrument, and about 20 years ago he had the opportunity to open for B. B. King with the band The Knockouts.
“My mom realized then that I was very serious about my…change in vocation,” he says of that night. “One of the greatest nights of my life.”
Robert’s love of the blues developed in Fairfax, VA, where he grew up. At home, he was exposed to artists like Chuck Berry and Robert Lockwood at a young age. His mother had a respectable record collection and played her favorites often.
Robert’s family didn’t resist his dream to be a blues musician. Despite his decision to drop out of high school to pursue music seriously, his parents were supportive. But Robert insists he could never have succeeded without mentors like Pete to show him the ropes.
“There are a lot of good players out there, but Pete was always looking out for me. He was always incredibly kind and generous with his knowledge.”
Speaking to Pete, it’s clear that Robert’s passion and determination encouraged the older musician to take him on.
“He was and is as serious as we all are, and he was that serious at 15 years of age. Remarkable. That’s why we embraced him with open arms; you can’t fake that.”
To Pete, Robert is proof that great blues music can transcend generations well into the future. As an experienced musician, he happily accepted his duty to mentor the next line of up-and-coming blues guitarists.
Over the years, Pete has helped guide other aspiring musicians like Pat O’Shea and Chris O’Leary, who both played in Levon Helm’s blues band.
“Super fine musicians both, and they’re like kid brothers to me,” says Pete.
Kanaras’ optimism about the future of the blues stems from the successful young artists that he’s influenced. But he admits that there’s something special about Robert.
“He has developed his own distinct voice on guitar, which is not an easy thing to do at all in a tradition-based music. I’m as proud of what Robert has accomplished as a parent would be, and he’s only just getting started.”
Robert and Pete both play regular gigs at the Cat’s Eye Pub and Bertha’s in Fells Point. The Pete Kanaras Blues Band will be at the Cat’s Eye on September 4th and the Robert Frahm Trio gigs there on September 17th.
Frahm’s debut CD — “The Robert Frahm Band” – was released when he was 18. It is available online or from the bandleader at any of his gigs.