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Burning man

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After 29 years of playing music, 40-year-old Dexter Romweber is still a man on fire, and his musical fire has not burnt out. His show at Local 506 in Chapel Hill last Friday night in front of 50 enthusiastic fans, coupled with a screening of the intensely personal documentary Two-Headed Cow about Dex's life and music, was as original and authentic as his work has always been. Accompanied by his sister, the amazingly strong, skinny and energetic Sara Romweber on drums, this incarnation of another Dexter musical duo was just as powerful and from-the-gut-soulful as the original Flat Duo Jets in the '80s and '90s.

I first met Dexter back sometime in the late '80s at a little white frame mill house off North Greensboro Street in Carrboro. A mutual friend invited me to play some music one hot summer afternoon. I grabbed my harmonicas and biked over. A maniacal guy with a huge pompadour was sitting at a battered old upright piano in the front room. I'd seen him playing on Franklin Street--scary, but musically compelling. My friend John was on the acoustic guitar. After some beers, we noodled around a while and ended up jamming on the '50s Frankie Ford doo-wop hit "Sea Cruise": "Oo wee, oo wee baby, oo wee, oo wee baby, won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?" The song was 7 years older than Dexter. I was only 8 when it came out, but we hit the harmonies all right, he knew all the lyrics and the whole thing hung together OK enough for living room music. I blew out the reeds on my C harp trying to keep the sound up.

The next winter, my brother came to visit and we went to the old Cat's Cradle while it lived, briefly, on Franklin Street. Dexter and Chris Crow made up the Flat Duo Jets, flailing and pounding out their psycho-billy in that small, sweaty, crowded room. To this day, my brother remarks on Dexter's rendition of the children's folk ballad "Froggy Went A' Courtin" played at a full tilt boogie with sweat flying and eyes rolled back in his head.

Friday, after a set of solo, classical piano á la Dexter, the film showcased Dexter's musical history. It was a raw, open, emotional look at a man who influenced others who made it big and left hanging the question of why he never made it. He sat in the audience watching and chain smoking. I tried to imagine what it was like for him to sit there watching his life unfold: singing jazz ballads 20 years ago in his mother's kitchen while she played; in the 1990 electrifying performance on the David Letterman show; and now back in little old Chapel Hill with 50 people in the room. After the screening, he asked if there were any questions, but everyone just wanted to hear him play again.

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