Attempting to recapture sweet era of the Bluesette

Thirty-five years ago, in a city coming apart at the seams, they were a loud bleat of music in the middle of the night signaling: Here are your children, gathered in the dark. The club, at Charles and 24th, was called the Bluesette. Comfortably, 25 people fit inside. Intimately, twice that. Routinely, they topped a hundred teenagers in all their energy and disarray and turned away a few hundred more every weekend.

Sunday in Hampden, at Frazier's on the Avenue on 36th Street, they'll try to recapture some of the sweetness of that anxious, edgy, sweaty era. Some of the old bands will be there, including Urch Perch and Howdy Duty, local legends in their time. So will Sharon Peyton, who never played a note. All she did was play den mother to a generation.


"There was no other place like it," Peyton, now 60, was saying this week, nibbling a salad at a Charles Village restaurant a few blocks north of the old Bluesette, which she co-owned with her husband, Art Peyton.

She arrived here this week from California, where she's lived for the past 26 years. For Peyton, still strikingly pretty, it's part sentimental journey and part mission to capture some of the old vibe in a documentary she's producing about the Bluesette. She's a former executive producer for a corporate video business.


"It's an irresistible opportunity to do a 'do-over,'" she said. "There was a mystique that lives in the memories of the people who spent their teenage years as part of this loosely knit community and still want to stay a community. The environment we tried to create back then encouraged all the bands to be creative, to write original music. There was no other place to do that and be heard."

But if the Bluesette was a safe haven to young musicians, it also was spiritual gathering ground for a generation growing up in the musical shadow of Woodstock, and the municipal shadow of a city in nervous transition. The Bluesette was a nonalcoholic club for teens too old for the innocence of CYO and school dances but not yet old enough to buy a drink. (The drinking limit also was 21 then.)

It was a time before teens turned Fells Point and Federal Hill and Canton into meccas, a time before Harborplace and Power Plant Live, before the great downtown renaissance. In those days, the universal teenage lament was: "There's no place to go." So they cruised the streets (gas was maybe 29 cents a gallon) or took dates to the movies. Or to Gino's or Ameche's or Fat Boy's. While this was going on, their parents were blowing town, fleeing to suburbia.

The Bluesette let their kids hold onto their city connections a little longer.

"Like the guy with the copying machines, we lived and breathed that stuff," said Ken Wolle, the drummer for Urch Perch back then.

Wolle got the reunion started a few months ago. He was getting phone calls, "a phenomenal amount of calls," from Bluesette-era musicians. They've stayed in touch all these years. It dawned on him: Why not get everybody back together, and invite the immediate world to drop in, and celebrate that time and place?

What kind of place was the Bluesette? You walked in and found yourself enveloped in sound: live rock bands playing weekends until midnight (emphatically loud music, too - loud enough that, one night, the sound broke a thick mirror) and jazz and blues until 5 in the morning. Strobe lights blinked rapidly, giving the only light in a place otherwise dark and crowded, with a dance floor 15 feet long and not much wider than a man's height.

What kind of a time was it? Kid named Wayne Parham, a guitar player, showed up one day from the D.C. suburbs, because he'd heard about this place called the Bluesette where he could play his music and maybe find a place to rent. He found Art Peyton bent over a game of chess, and asked if Peyton had a place. Peyton, who'd never seen the kid before, didn't even look up from the chess board.


"You 18 yet?" he asked.


"'Cause I don't want your parents showing up looking for you."


"OK," Peyton said, "you can sleep in the closet on the landing for $20 a month."

Which the kid did, because it was that kind of a time, and that kind of a place. And they were all very young.


Some of those musicians will be back Sunday: Max Ochs, Mike Dennis, Robbie Hildreth, Gil Reinhardt, Fred Tepper, Kathy McCabe, Jerry Nitzberg. They all had followings back then, and made music with groups that seemed to pull their names out of strange corners of the psyche: the Uncertain Things, Meat, Urch Perch, Yankee Network, Barrelhouse, the Intruders, the Savages.

Over lunch the other day, Sharon Peyton showed an e-mail she got from Henry Johnson, who helped manage the Bluesette. He remembered, "One Sunday morning after the 'after-hours,' as we watched the sun rise through the window of the White Coffee Pot on North and Charles, [doorman] Denny Beard commented, 'We're living through something that has never happened before and will never happen again.' But, somewhere in each of us, it never really ended."

Peyton nodded her head in affirmation, and showed another e-mail, from an old Bluesette customer, Linda Thompson-Berky. It said, "Those times, the celebration and catharsis, still serve as an affirmation, a Zen mantra ... the last dance comes, and the music never stops. How nice we get to do it over again."

The reunion is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday at Frazier's on the Avenue.