Electric, Eclectic Gent
Electric, Eclectic Gent
A Q&A with Dustin Douglas
By Geoff Gehman
The logo for Dustin Douglas and the Electric Gentleman is a silhouetted, bowler-hatted gent leaning on a lightning bolt. Emblazoned on the band’s bass drum, it’s a suitable symbol for three musicians who play blues and blues-rock with a refiner’s fire. You can hear this concentrated crunch in their back-dooring, back-biting version of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” or their creeping, galloping rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” both of which appear on their 2017 EP “Blues 1.” This blend percolates in Douglas’ efficient, explosive guitar; his spooning, spooling voice, and his cool-cat, hell-cat stage personality. At times he seems to imagine he’s in Led Zeppelin, performing the soundtrack for “The Avengers.”
Douglas, drummer Tommy Smallcomb and bassist Matt “The Dane” Gabriel will return on Jan. 13 to the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where in September they hypnotized the house with a “Black Magic Woman” that was a sweet suite of meditations, locomotive runs and astral flourishes. Douglas traded sparkling, sparking licks with opening guitarist Mike MiZ and strolled the stage in a coat, Stetson and spats, head bobbing and fingers floating through the anything-goes sphere of Steve Ray Vaughan, one of his power-trio heroes.
Below, in a conversation from Music Go Round, a guitar shop he serves in his native Wilkes-Barre, Douglas discusses Vaughan’s vibe, the elements of a great guitar solo and the gift of a fan tattooing an arm with his phrase “Been There, Done That.”
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: I was around 10 when I first heard Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child [Slight Return].” I started taking guitar lessons at nine and, honestly, man, that song sucked me in. I just loved the energy, the power, behind the whole thing: you can tell the amps were cranked. I remember thinking: I want to do that. We love to bring out “Voodoo Child” during shows, so I still want to do that.
Q: What was the first blues tune that took you for a wild ride, that placed you on a new path?
A: I don’t know if it was a track but it was definitely Stevie Ray [Vaughan]. I remember seeing his videos when stations still played videos and getting his CDs and playing them and learning them nonstop for months. It led me to be curious about his influences, which made me go backwards through the history of blues and blues-rock
Q: You share an early Stevie Ray obsession with Samantha Fish, one of my recent Mauch Chunk interviewees. She fell hard for him while she was holed up for two weeks in a Florida motel, spending countless hours studying a DVD of one of “Austin City Limits” gigs.
A: I absolutely can agree with her. I listened over and over to a DVD of both his “Austin City Limits” shows; I think I’m on my third copy.
Q: Why did Steve Ray get under your skin?
A: Honestly, it’s the passion, the lack of thought. It’s soul guitar, with no middle man. Stevie Ray helped teach me how to lead a power tree; he’s in my wheelhouse and always in my pocket.
Q: Why did you release the “Blues 1” EP and why did those four blues standards make the cut?
A: We had downtime between the last original record and the new one and we wanted to put something out for the fans. So we decided to record tunes that felt the best, that “sell” the best, in rehearsals and shows. We’ve been playing “Big Legged Woman” for a while, so that felt very comfortable. We play “Born Under a Bad Sign” in a lower key, a dropped D, and then a fast blues with “Boom Boom.” They chose themselves essentially. Each one is very descriptive of our style; all of them are who we are
Q: You shake things up on “Boom Boom” by almost whispering the words. The softer, seductive singing makes the instrumentals more electric and energetic.
A: Singing softer was definitely something different, something out of the wheelhouse. After I finished the track, I thought, well, this is a sensual thing going on; this really feels cool.
Q: I know you’re more of a blues-rocker but why is playing the blues so satisfying? I’m sure it has to do with those primal riffs and those juicy words with spicy meanings.
A: The honesty of the lyrics has always been intriguing to me. Blues singers are talking about their day, they’re talking about their women; they’re talking about their lives. I also love the honesty of the playing. There’s nothing abstract about it; it’s a direct hit to the heart and gut.
Q: What’s your favorite blues lyric, one suitable for T-shirt, bumper sticker and tattoo? I dig the opening of “Big Legged Woman”: “I love the tip, I love the top/I love you better than a hog loves slop”
A: I like “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” [from “Born Under a Bad Sign”]. I also like “I asked her for water, she gave me gasoline” [from Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues”]. I like the dark stuff, man.
Q: Is there a guitar solo that inspires you, that draws you like water from the well? And what makes a great guitar solo? One of my favorite solos is Lindsey Buckingham’s slow-burning, carefully climbing, rip-open-the-heavens outro in Fleetwood Mac’s live versions of “I’m So Afraid.” At the end he’s shooting asteroids in a new sonic universe.
A: I love the solo in Lionel Richie’s “Easy.” I’m more of a fan of a solo that’s perfect for the song than some dude shitting off. I’ve never learned a guitar solo from beginning to end and I’ve never played a guitar solo note for note or the same way twice. I’m more expressive than mathematical.
Q: Your solos in “Black Magic Woman” are vivid, varied and panoramic, as if you’re straddling the worlds between Fleetwood Mac’s original gritty blues-rock version and Santana’s smoother Latin-rock rendition.
A: That took on a life of its own. I love vintage Fleetwood Mac so I play a little bit of vintage Peter Green [the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist who composed the song]. I like going on a journey, a journey that takes its time. I’m not one for speed.
Q: Did you have a recent long-time-coming discovery, a hard-earned epiphany, that makes playing guitar easier and happier?
A: I get inspiration from equipment. I appreciate great gear and good tones; I’m definitely a vintage tone snob. I recently bought a mid-’60s Fender Super Reverb [amplifier]–that’s been pretty cool for blues. Honestly, I’m a guy who plays a lot of guitar. I practice quote unquote a lot; if I’m lying on a couch I’m playing something. I want to be perfect; that’s intriguing to keep trying; that’s what keeps me coming back.
Q: You evolved from a guitarist in the Badlees and your power trio Lemongelli to a guitar-playing frontman. What’s one thing you don’t want to do as the center of attention?
A: Say anything dumb [laughs]. Stage banter is definitely something you can overthink. The idea is to roll with the mood. I’m still figuring out how to do that, consistently, in the moment.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you suspected you should give it all up?
A: I feel that every day [laughs]. Actually, nothing comes to mind. It’s always tough after a record cycle, when things start slowing down. It’s a constant struggle, the way the industry is now; there are no overnight successes, no flashes in the pan. Playing music for a living is something you should only do if you’re totally committed. Either you truly, truly love performing or you should get out of the business.
Q: What was your best time in the music trade, when you felt behind the eight ball?
A: There were cool shows with the Badlees when we opened for Bob Seger in arenas. To tell you the truth, having fans tell you how your songs affect them is just as satisfying as those big arena shows. One fan has a lyric from my solo record, “Black Skies and Starlight,” tattooed on her arm: “Been There, Done That.” That’s very gratifying, very moving.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from traveling the world to world peace.
A: I want to make a living strictly by playing music; I want to support a family by playing music. I wouldn’t mind world peace, either.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List? Musicians have told me everything from an end to spirit-crushing religions to death to all snakes.
A: I think we all need to find happiness and realize that we’re all the same people. Fuck all that shit; life’s too short, man.
Q: Who came up with the logo of the bowler-hatted gent leaning on a lightning bolt and why does it fit the group’s groove?
A: Our graphic designer, Dave Fisk; we consider him a fourth member of the band. Essentially, we wanted a logo that doesn’t need any words to get the point across, one that’s similar to the Rolling Stones’ tongue or Aerosmith’s wings or the Grateful Dead’s bears. Dave definitely nailed it. It’s one less thing to worry about, and it looks like what I look like when I rock my hats.
Q: The hats you three wear onstage are a nice fashion statement, a distinctive brand. But, hey, you have a neat tidal wave of hair: why hide it under a hat?
A: I usually don’t have time to wash my hair, so nobody would want to see it anyway [laughs]. Truthfully, I like showing off my collection of hats; I probably have 30 in rotation. I recently found a nice one that was made in Wilkes-Barre. I found it in the attic of a hall; I call it a hall hat.
Dustin Douglas: The Scoop
He changed his stage name to Douglas, his middle name, from his birth name of Drevitch because the latter was misspelled too often.
One of his early musical mentors in Wilkes-Barre was a guitarist nicknamed Big Daddy Dex. “He showed me the way of blues-rock through bands like the Allman Brothers. I was also influenced by the music my parents played around the house. Led Zeppelin and early Bad Company gave me the edge of blues-rock; it trickled down into my soul.”
Lemongelli, his former power trio, shared stages with Cheap Trick and Heart.
His 2014 solo record, “Black Skies and Starlight,” was produced by Bret Alexander, co-founder of his old band, the Badlees.
He and the Electric Gentlemen—drummer Tommy Smallcomb and bassist Matt “The Dane” Gabriel–are recording an album of Douglas’ blues-rock originals with “heavy” guitar and new doses of R&B.
In the YouTube promo for “Blues 1” a 2017 EP, Douglas and the Electric Gents cruise in a black, white-striped Chevelle SS, a favorite Boomer muscle car.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His dream ride is a 1965 Mustang convertible, the vehicle that played his first unforgettable song, the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing.” He can be reached at email@example.com.