Go Go Dex Baby
Dex Romweber has pretty much seen it all. Since forming Flat Duo Jets in 1983, the rockabilly whirlwind has played on David Letterman, been touted alongside the likes of R.E.M. in the seminal music documentary, Athens,Georgia: Inside/Out, and received a late career boost from Jack White (White Stripes, The Dead Weather). All the while, not much has changed. Romweber still plays with the same vim and vigor as the 19 year old who stormed the world with his first EP in 1985. He still releases records on a variety of labels and tours the country playing smoky bars and nightclubs. The audiences, however, have only gotten smaller.
This was certainly the case this past Monday, April 5th, as Romweber, now playing as the Dex Romweber Duo with drummer sister, Sara, found himself sitting under a tree on the Russell House patio of the USC campus, signature 1965 Silvertone guitar at his side. When I remarked on the potential scarcity of the crowd, Romweber thoughtfully took a drag on his cigarette and replied, “I’m used to it.” Now one might attest this to the fact that Romweber was playing on a Monday at noon to a potential crowd not old enough to remember Flat Duo Jets in their heyday. However, sparse turnouts have also marked Romweber’s last two White Mule shows in the capital city as well.
While this might deter some artists from trudging forward, it is obvious that the music is what keeps him going. As Romweber puts it in the 2006 documentary Two Headed Cow, “The only thing that has not let me down through all this time was my guitar. That was the only thing that was consistently there. Nothing else ever was.” Musician Jason Edge (Original Sinners) sums it up best in the film when he says, “It has nothing to do with whether it’s a solo or not, when Dex breaks into it, it’s just a scary phantom kind of thing. People don’t play that way.” And play he did on the pollen covered patio at USC as he ripped through a set of Flat Duo Jets tunes, 60s garage rock rarities, and new songs like the Jack White produced “The Wind Did Move,” released as a limited edition 45 on White’s new label, Third Man Records.
It is indeed White who has given Romweber his biggest dose of exposure in years by citing the guitar slinger in a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose and more expansively in Davis Guggenheim’s 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud which also features Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge discussing their influences. The influence on the White Stripes is crystal clear. The Stripes utilize a basic guitar and drums line-up like Flat Duo Jets and the Dex Romweber Duo while White’s guitar tone and ferocious playing style also recalls that of Romweber. Listen to the Stripes’s breakout single, “Fell in Love with a Girl” from 2001’s White Blood Cells and compare with the Flat Duo Jets’s cover of “Shape of Things to Come” off 1998’s Wild Blue Yonder and you will see what I mean.
Dex’s admirers have also contributed to his latest album, Ruins of Berlin, released last year on Bloodshot Records. The LP finds Dex trading licks with Rick Miller (Southern Culture on the Skids) and sharing vocals with the likes of indie darlings Neko Case, Cat Power, and X’s Exene Cervenka (another underappreciated artist). After a brief tour of Europe in May, Romweber will be back on the road in the U.S. trying to eke out a living the same way he has for the past twenty years. Unfortunately, the love from his peers has yet to equal financial independence, hence the gig on the USC patio at noon. In truth, Romweber may always remain an underappreciated gem and “one of the best kept secrets of the rock n roll underground.” For the man who “taught Jack White how to be Jack White,” it may have to be enough.
Liner Notes is a continuing series of articles about the music that matters to me.