Music News & Reviews

Flat Duo Jets vet Dex Romweber lands in Lexington with solo show

Dex Romweber comes to Willie’s Locally Known on Friday.
Dex Romweber comes to Willie’s Locally Known on Friday.

Dex Romweber

Opening: JD Wilkes. 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. $10. 859-281-1116.

On a number of levels, Dex Romweber’s new album, “Carrboro,” can be viewed as rock ’n’ roll comfort food. It’s a smorgasbord of roots-rock mischievousness that includes samplings of rockabilly, surf, twang and deliciously primitive variations of pop tradition. But it’s also a reminder of what an uncompromising original Romweber has always been.

Then again, Lexington audiences have always known that.

In the 1980s, the irreverent song stylist was half of the Flat Duo Jets, the famed Southern-bred guitar and drums duo that offered a raw and immediate post-punk variation of electric roots music and garage rock. The latter tag could be seen as a literal component of the band’s sound, as its self-titled late ’80s album was cut live to two tracks in a garage. Flat Duo Jets was a frequent visitor to several Lexington clubs throughout the ’80s and early ’90s.

“Carrboro” (the North Carolina city where Flat Duo Jets formed) offers a far more expansive musical portrait of Romweber while remaining faithful to his renegade profile. Perhaps the biggest curiosity is the album-opening “I Had a Dream,” a bit of tradition-minded anthemic pop sung with poker-faced solemnity. The tune screams Roy Orbison, but it was penned by Brooklyn-by-way-of-Yorkshire pop stylist Findlay Brown in 2010. The tune suggests, albeit briefly, that Romweber might be surrendering to a more retiring pop muse.

That deception is shattered when “Carrboro” reaches for Cecil Hartsoe’s “Lonesome Train,” cut in the Carolinas by Cecilia Batten in 1957. Romweber’s singing takes on a deeper, more devilish tone. He sounds like Screaming Jay Hawkins, only more suave. Then Romweber lets his guitar do the talking alongside the New Romans (the 10-member band he gigs with regularly in the Chapel Hill, N.C., area) for an instrumental blast of original, Halloween-ish jazz and surf fun called “Nightide.” And that’s just the record’s first three tunes.

From there, “Carrboro” veers into several unexpected covers of highly familiar standards, including a reading of “My Funny Valentine” that has been rewired into a nearly unrecognizable backbeat-savvy instrumental, with its melody transformed by Romweber through a distant hum on organ. There also is a version of Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Smile,” sung with uniform delicacy over a cushion of dissonant solo piano that gives the tune an altogether woozy feel.

Slightly more traditional in temperament is “I Don’t Know,” which glides along with the feel of a half-century-old country shuffle. It’s really a tune penned by the late, underappreciated Texas songsmith Stephen Bruton and Americana maestro T Bone Burnett and was featured as part of the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack in 2010.

Romweber’s original works fit seamlessly in the rootsy matrix of “Carrboro.” The Hawkins spirit is summoned again in more robust fashion with help from Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist Rick Miller during “Knock, Knock (Who’s That Knockin’ on My Coffin Lid Door)” before bleeding into the surf and twang fun of “Midnight at Vic’s.”

Crowning it all, though, is Romweber’s treatment of “Trouble of the World,” cut as a slice of topical gospel by Mahalia Jackson in 1959, but served on “Carrboro” with the New Romans and a dark round of rough, jazzy swing.

Experience all these sounds live as, Romweber reconvenes Friday night in Lexington for a show at Willie’s Locally Known, with Paducah roots-music rebel JD Wilkes, known for combustible Lexington shows over the past 15 years with the Legendary Shack Shakers and the Dirt Daubers.

Wilkes is touring behind his 2015 solo album, “Cattle in the Cane” with traditional and predominantly mountain music-inspired tunes.