The contemporary music world is fractured to such a degree that each new band seems to beg for its own new, narrowly defined subgenre. Figuring out what to label everything is futile work, but it gives the Internet something to chatter about, and that's gotta count for something. Hooray, then, for guys like Dexter Romweber. He plays rock 'n' roll, dammit, and you can tack on as many qualifiers as you please, but it is what it is, straight-up bluesy, primal, gut-punching rock 'n' roll.
Dexter Romweber — "just Dex" to his close and personals, and just about anybody else — came around in the '80s, playing in a raucous duo called the Flat Duo Jets, tearing up stages, houses, and lives in the North Carolina and Georgia music scenes. Dex and a guy called Crow, his partner in crime, split ways more than a decade ago, but Romweber's carried on, putting out albums alternately under his own name, that of the Dexter Romweber Duo, and most recently the pared-down Dex Romweber Duo. Is That You in the Blue? is the latest Duo album, and it finds Romweber partnering once again with his sister, Sara Romweber.
The album's tunes run the gamut from beach-party rockers to sultry bossa nova sweet-talkers, all anchored by Sara's unrelenting drum whomps and Dex's vintage Silvertone guitar wrangling. (For those who'd care to draw White Stripes parallels, Jack White's already beaten you to it — he credits Romweber as a major influence.) Romweber's got a husky, resonant voice, deep and warm. He's able to run it ragged without going off the rails, and he finds good company in rockabilly greats like Jay Chevalier, Robert Gordon, Billy Lee Riley, and, especially, Sleepy LaBeef. Tunewise, the Duo's wild ruckus is comfortable alongside The Sonics, The Sorrows, Hasil Adkins — whichever purveyor of four-on-the-floor classic, unadorned, garage-y loudness you prefer.
At this point, though, Romweber says he doesn't look back too much to older sources. "I know all that stuff deep," he says over the phone from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he's just finished rehearsing for his upcoming tour. "I don't need to go back and reference it when I'm writing new songs anymore."
Romweber's circled around the cinema, as well. In the 2009 guitar-rock documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White plays a Romweber tune for Jimmy Page and The Edge. Viewers of the mid-'80s documentary Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out will have seen a teenage Dex in unhinged, lusty glory; the director of that film went on to make a documentary focused solely on Romweber, which was released in 2006. Romweber's a bit ambivalent about it. "Well, of course you can't get everything into one movie, everything about one person's life, you know?" says Romweber. "I've seen it a bunch — too many times — and it is weird to see someone else's version or idea of your own life. And there's not quite enough music in there. But it's not something I ever need or want to see again."
Dex Romweber Duo's performances are notoriously wild, and it can seem as though the man's wrestling — literally — with some serious external forces while onstage. There's one thing that he relies on as a pre-show ritual in order to get himself to the place he needs to be to let loose in front of a crowd. It's simple, he says: "Prayer." After years of hard living, Romweber shackled some of his demons — drugs and drink were significant influences — and turned inwards for soul and sonic satisfaction. "Prayer gets me ready to get onstage and let go," he says. "And when I write a song, I call it going into a reverie. I just let 'em come to me."