Torches passed among the RNR initiates

by Jordan Green

Torches passed among the RNR initiates

Dexter Romweber, the legendary guitar maniac and romantic crooner of Chapel Hill who is credited with inspiring the career of Jack White of the White Stripes, brought his expanded ensemble to Solaris in Greensboro last week. Romweber inspired a minimalist rock-and-roll movement in the mid-1980s with a two-man unit called the Flat Duo Jets that included drummer Crow Smith. Since the demise of that band, the guitarist has resurfaced with the Dex Romweber Duo, which includes sister Sara on drums. Earlier this year, they released a well-received full-length album with guest turns by notables including Cat Power, Neko Case and Rick Miller of Southern Culture On The Skids. The Aug. 19 concert at Solaris, on the other hand, expanded the power duo concept into a sprawling ensemble, a project called the New Romans that included founding member and drummer Dave Schmitt, guest percussionist Dave Hartman from Southern Culture on the Skids, opera-trained backup singer Jody Kidney, Zen Frisbee alum Kevin Dixon, jazz saxophonist Bob Pence, former Southern Culture on the Skids keyboardist Chris Bess and bass player Stu Cole of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Mary Huff from Southern Culture On the Skids, looking like a cross between a bouffant ’60s model and a gas station attendant, was scuffing the floor and throwing elbows in the audience. Schmitt founded the group five or six years ago, and said he considers the New Romans “a hobby band” for Romweber, “an experiment” and a side project to the duo. The ensemble’s sound is looser and slightly more unwieldy than the sustained attack in Romweber’s duo work. Schmitt describes it as a “non-kosher klezmer” band, but some pieces sound like a demented nightclub band in pre-revolution Cuba, or the origi- nal soundtrack of Orson Welles’ 1958 Mexican border thriller Touch of Evil. The music has a chaotic quality rooted in rocka- billy and blues that casts wildly about the genres of surf, Latin and dramatic theater music, sounding one minute like Roy Orbison instrumental music on steroids and like brutal lounge music the next. Romweber’s usually impeccable pompadour was relaxed and casual. He played with characteristic intensity, roaming the stage, mostly looking down and occasionally breaking out with a wide grin when he locked gazes with his fellow musicians. Kidney, who typically performs with two other backup sing- ers, added a key element to Romweber’s baritone vibrato. She stood a good 12 inches from the microphone to avoid over- powering, and her voice melded with the group’s orchestral sound rather than soaring over it. Kidney’s voice helped build Romweber’s vocals into a wall of operatic intensity. After the show, Huff came over to the table where Schmitt and Kidney were winding down to offer congratulations. “It was the best I’ve ever seen them,” she said. “It sounded like a hot, crackly 45…. The drums of Dave Schmitt could not be matched.” Kidney agreed: “We kicked some ass and took some names.” Schmitt said it had been the New Romans’ first appearance ever in Greensboro. He noted that the concert was booked because of Josh Johnson, a friend and former Chapel Hill resident who performs under the moniker of Pinche Gringo. “I really like to think of him as the new Hasil Adkins,” Schmitt said. “I’ve always known him as a really good drummer. He’s an over-achiever, singing and playing the guitar as well.Hasil was a good friend of Dexter’s. I took Dexter up to see Hasil. Ithink Josh is a lot like Hasil. Josh and Dexter might be consideredslow by some people because they have this really laid back way aboutthem. But if you can do the percussion, sing and play, there’s a lotgoing on.” It was clear that a torch is being shared. Not only isRomweber reaching for new heights but he’s bringing an acolyte inbehind him. When Johnson took the stage he played the drums and guitar,and sang with raw and primal intensity. Not unlike a once-young DexterRomweber. Hartman accompanied him on maracas, almost as a stamp of approval from an elder generation.

Dexter Romweber brought his large band to Solaris in Greensboro on Aug. 19. (photo by Jordan Green)