Dex Romweber and Cool John Ferguson, experts in fresh takes on old sounds | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Dex Romweber and Cool John Ferguson, experts in fresh takes on old sounds 

There's a song Dex Romweber likes to play called "Is It Too Late?"

Originally, he says, it was a honky-tonk tune written by Durham's Roy House. Years ago, Romweber owned the tune on a 45 RPM single, but he lost his copy. He set out to remake the song for himself, closing his 2009 album, Ruins of Berlin, with a spare acoustic turn rewritten from his memory of that old single. It stood apart from the work of the electric guitar-and-drums duo he then had with his sister, Sara. Really, it makes little difference how far Romweber's version strays from House's original; in Romweber's hands, "Is It Too Late?" becomes a standout.

There's a song South Carolina-bred blues guitarist Cool John Ferguson likes to cover, too.

His take on "Hey Joe," which Jimi Hendrix made famous, stretches to nearly nine minutes and builds into a fiery solo that showcases Ferguson's ecstatic playing. He dives into scorching feedback and bobs back into crystalline tones, screeches through high-string runs and falls back into a comforting low-end riff. It sounds little like Hendrix's more concise versions, even though its din suggests one of the icon's more incendiary moments.

Both Romweber's "Is It Too Late?" and Ferguson's "Hey Joe" are outliers in their repertoires. Romweber's known best for fiery rockabilly, though he's dabbled in classical and folk. And Ferguson often plays more subdued and nuanced blues guitar. But both songs are telling because they suggest the ways Romweber and Ferguson draw from wells of vintage inspiration to arrive at singular styles.

Lately, Romweber has been revisiting some of his earliest influences by reigniting the Flat Duo Jets catalog, with drummer Crash LaResh standing in for Chris "Crow" Smith. When the duo debuted earlier this year, Romweber showed he hadn't lost any of that old fire; his fresh take on those old rockabilly rave-ups seemed as loud and aggressive as they must have been when, in 1990, New York Times critic Jon Pareles called the Jets "noisy and frantic and sloppy and dangerous."

But Romweber's most interesting material arrived in the interim between the Jets' 1999 flameout and the neo-Jets' arrival. Solo and in various full-band configurations, Romweber explored beyond rockabilly, expanding his body of pensive torch songs, surf-rock deep cuts, exotica and classic country, and then combining it all. He added horns and dancers for the big band Dexter Romweber & the New Romans, conjuring a slinky nightclub vibe. He also released an album of classical piano compositions. Romweber mined all manners of early American pop music and gave them new life.

Cool John Ferguson - PHOTO BY TIM DUFFY
  • Photo by Tim Duffy
  • Cool John Ferguson

Ferguson taps even older tendencies. He was raised in the Pentecostal church on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. He honed his six-string craft by playing sacred music, field songs and traditional African music.

"I'd learn everything I could get my hands on," he has said. "It didn't matter where the music came from, I just learned it all—TV themes, blues, R&B, jazz, gospel. It all came in my ears and out through my hands."

That inclusivity remains intact. Solo, Ferguson veers from blazing psychedelic rock to smoldering soul, from Gullah blues to easygoing jazz. With collaborators like Winston-Salem's Captain Luke, with whom he recorded this year's Live at the Hamilton, Ferguson offers an easy complement, adapting his style to match his partner's. The pair moves gracefully from heavy riffs to airy melodies.

Over the decades, Romweber and Ferguson have both built nuanced, varied catalogs. But to figure out what makes each an idiosyncratic player in his own right, listen to them play someone else's song—they can't help but make it their own.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Renewable energy"

  • The unlikely intersection of Dex Romweber's raucous rock and Cool John Ferguson's soulful blues

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