Because the ad said that Dex Romweber would begin at 9 PM, and because we thought we would arrive in time to have a drink and survey the surroundings before the show actually began, my friend Steve and I arrived at The Basement at exactly 9 PM. Big mistake. Save the drummer for one of the two opening duos—who was fiddling with one of her cymbals—we were literally the only people in the bar. No other patrons, no other musicians, and no bartender. Steve literally had to walk outside to find someone to sell us a beer.
I hadn’t seen Dex (formerly of the Flat Duo Jets) play in years, and, if no one was going to show up at this show (two opening bands before Dex played and no one was here?), I wasn’t quite sure I could stand to stick around either. The whole thing had the feeling of a depressing nightmare from which I wanted to slink away. And had I been alone, I may well have done so.
“What must it be like,” Steve asked, “to play in places like this for all these years?”
It was a good question and a dark moment. Dexter Romweber has indeed been playing in all types of clubs, on all types of street corners, in friggin’ sandwich shops, for years and years. And this night, he was playing in this club, in a city famous for such musical snobbery that people either don’t show up for shows when they should, or they refuse to act impressed when a band has blown them away.
To give some personal context—both as a means of fair warning and because I think it’s important to the story—I’ve known Dexter for years. I first met him because my girlfriend at the time was close friends with his sister (and current drummer of the Dex Romweber Duo), the extraordinary Sara Romweber. I had rented a room in their mother’s house years ago for a summer and was quite frankly charmed and amazed by the entire Romweber family (Note to anyone in that family: the current craze for autobiography is a big opportunity: no one has as interesting and colorful of a story to tell. At least not for my money). At any rate, while I wouldn’t consider us friends in the “everyday” sense, I do have a fondness and a familiarity with both Dex and Sarah, and I did want a crowd here to watch them.
As I was wading through the two opening acts (Ugggh! The Basement had scheduled two other duos with a male singer/guitarist and female drummer to open the show), Dex and Sarah appeared, and I spent some time catching up with them, asking about their family, where their tour had taken them, and so forth. The entire time I was talking to Dex, I kept hearing the refrain of Steve’s question—“What must it be like to play in places like this for all these years?”
Inadvertently, while running through the lives of various brothers and sisters, Dex answered Steve. After naming a brother or sister, and letting me know their current occupation, he would add, “S/he’s artistic” or “S/he’s not artistic,” depending on the case. And I realized that for Dex, this designation was important. It designated something about their core identity, something about who they were. It wasn’t evaluative, but it was a marker.
It was then that I realized that while you could ask, “What must it be like for Dex to play in places like this for all these years?,” you couldn’t ask it to imply that he could have been doing something else. Indeed, Dex plays these clubs because that’s what Dex does, that’s what he is.
Now, as it turned out, the show was great. I’m so far out of the loop these days that I had no idea that such a large crowd would eventually show up to see them, either. Now, as I’ve said, I’ve seen Dex play dozens of times, and he’s been great sometimes, and sometimes, he’s been . . . well, not so great. But on this night, he and Sarah were transcendent. Dex played his trademark swamp groovabilly with a mature swagger, riffing on, I think, everything off their new Ruins of Berlin cd. The place was packed and noisy. Indeed, Jack White was in the house, having, I found out later, recording Dex and Sarah over the previous several days (a single is evidently to be released on White’s new label). I never needed worry about the crowd or its adoration.
But here’s the thing I’ve kept returning to since that show. Whenever people ask how I ended up being a “professor,” I tell them the truth: “I never planned it. This is just how life worked out as I made one small decision after another. Life simply that took me in this direction. Any number of events could have taken me in a different direction, to a different career.” Given a life plan like mine, I couldn’t have played the same clubs over and over, “all those years.” It’s not simply that I’m not an artist; I was never defined by a core identity. If something didn’t work, I would have moved on to something that did.
And here’s what I wonder: given the obvious enthusiasm in Dex’s voice and body as he played for a crowd in yet another small club, given the intense look on Sarah’s face as she kept the beat behind him, isn’t such an identity to be envied?