Last Friday at Propaganda was an evening of sweaty, unabashed musical revival. Both acts on the evening's bill, the Dexter Romweber Duo and Ben Prestage, masterfully resurrected styles of music popular decades ago - rockabilly and bluegrass, respectively. And each made those styles their own.
Despite arguably being the main draw, first up was the Dexter Romweber Duo, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Romweber's work as frontman for the '90s psychobilly act Flat Duo Jets has made him an underground rock icon. Performing with his sister Sara on drums, Dexter hashed out a ton of material from the duo's latest album, Ruins of Berlin.
Dexter's haunting croon -- try to imagine Johnny Cash, gone more wicked -- impressed on the aforementioned album's title track. He transformed "Love Letters," which on Ruins of Berlin is sung by Chan Marshall, into a raspy mid-tempo ballad. "If You Love Me Like You Say" was a hop-skipping, three-chord humdinger, a bit like the Stray Cats, only stripped-down, bluesier, and with a dash of more soul. But Romweber's rendition of oft-covered samba tune "Brazil" was the highlight of the set. Here he gave Old Blues Eyes a run for his money -- only Sinatra never sounded as raw and edgy as this.
Next up was musical one-man spectacle, Ben Prestage. This Belle Glades native has created his own style of Florida swamp blues boogie, and he always puts out a show. Even if blues or country isn't your thing, Prestage will win you over as he hollers away and plucks nasty riffs on what looks like a homemade guitar. Prestage takes the skill of walking and chewing gum to new levels, using every single limb on stage. His left foot switches between snare and cymbal pedals, his right foot goes on the bass pedal, and his left and right hands command that cigar-box guitar. That's quite a contraption, really - it's actually made out of a cigar box with a broomstick handle. It's then strung with one bass and three guitar strings, allowing Prestage to seemingly play both the bass and guitar.
Prestage played some real hillbilly stuff too, of which his jug band-style cover of Sam Chatmon's "That's My Gal" was the best. On "Rag," Prestage did otherworldly work with the frets, as he rolled his eyes so far back that you can only see the whites. One had to wonder if Prestage hadn't struck up a Robert Johnson-style pact of his own.
Personal Bias: I think the Flat Duo Jets were better than Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and all the other swing-type acts of the '90s. It's a shame they never hit it big.
Random Detail: The 2006 International Blues Challenge named Ben Prestage one of the three best unsigned artisan the world.
By the Way: You can catch Dexter Romweber in 2008's Lake City, starring alongside Sissy Spacek, Rebecca Romijn, and Dave Matthews.
-- Alex Rendon