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Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks pick up where they left off more than 20 years ago

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
"How can I miss you when you won't go away?" asks the catchy chorus to one of acoustic prankster Dan Hicks' most sardonic love songs, recorded way back in the early '70s. For folks here in the Bay Area it was never that big of an issue, since Hicks -- a Marin local who'd been big in the early San Francisco rock scene -- never really went anywhere. Those in the know could catch him playing at small clubs in Marin or maybe one of his infrequent Christmas gigs.

For the rest of the country, though, Hicks' whereabouts have been a matter of speculation for the better part of two decades -- a mystery that is now solved, thanks to the release of Beatin' the Heat, the first Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks studio album in over 20 years. It's not only one of Hicks' best efforts, it's also one of the best records to hit the acoustic Americana scene in recent years.

The album features the patented Hot Licks sound -- a slick mix of acoustic jazz, rock, and old-timey hillbilly riffs, topped off with a hefty dose of Tin Pan Alley pop savvy. The disc is full of high-powered guest stars such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Brian Setzer, Bette Midler, and Rickie Lee Jones, all of whom jumped at the chance to record with the man who pioneered the confluence of jazz and pop.

Hicks started off his musical career as a humble band geek, drumming in his Santa Rosa high school's flag corps. From there he made the leap into an early '60s folk and jug band scene that also included baby-faced bluegrassers Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Once the Beatles stormed America's shores, many earnest San Francisco folkies transferred their musical allegiance to rock 'n' roll; Hicks dutifully picked up his sticks and started beating the tom-toms in the Charlatans, one of the first and gnarliest bands in the now-legendary S.F. psychedelic scene. Unlike contemporaries such as Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead, the Charlatans never had much commercial success; they released only one single on Kapp Records, an ailing and terminally un-hip label, then imploded, as bands often do. In terms of style, though, the group made an indelible impression on many of its peers.

"We were this heavy rock band," Hicks recalls, "that dressed in this whole turn-of-the-century, Edwardian cowboy style, and we were playing all this old-timey stuff." The band's first major gig was at a Virginia City, Nev., saloon that had an Old West theme. "I was the only guy in the band who didn't wear a starched collar. We didn't consciously set out to be retro, but that's how it came out."

Bay Area music historian Alec Palao, who recently compiled a collection of the best Charlatans material, recalls that the band's attitude was also very distinct from its flower-power contemporaries: "The Charlatans were very much a breed apart from what typified San Francisco in the '60s. They weren't into peace and love at all -- actually, they were quite an ornery bunch of fellows, just about the most right-wing bunch of hippies imaginable." The Charlatans' rough-and-ready Butch Cassidy garb suited itself well to Hicks' unsentimental, smart-ass lyrics -- songs like "How Can I Miss You" and "We're Not on the Same Trip" might have seemed mean-spirited if they weren't so darn clever.

But as everyone around him turned on, plugged in, and cranked up the reverb, Hicks -- in a typically perverse move -- went retro acoustic. His new band, the Hot Licks, featured a tight rhythm section, a jazzy violinist, and Andrews Sisters-styled vocal arrangements (which eventually inspired other nostalgia-oriented jazz acts such as Midler and the Manhattan Transfer). The act went national in the early '70s, touring often and making TV appearances on The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show. Hicks even graced the cover of Rolling Stone -- twice. Then, at the height of his fame, he decided to call it quits.

"At some point," Hicks recalls, "I just got tired of being a band leader. I hadn't planned on doing it forever, and it's hard to judge how successful you're being. It wasn't like we were all figuring out what condos to buy, or how to invest our money. I kept on doing gigs, though -- I just cut it down to two people and tried out different combinations."

After disbanding the Hot Licks, Hicks pursued a low-key career, doing a little acting, some on-and-off touring with the scaled-down Acoustic Warriors, and a lot of studio tinkering at home. Record deals came up from time to time, but Hicks was often dissatisfied with his recorded efforts, and some of his best work was left on the shelf.

"Sometimes I'll make something at home on my little cassette machine or eight-track, I'll make a little demo and I'll say, "Yeah, this is the sound; this is what I want.' And then by the time the record's made, you don't hear a lot of what I thought of originally. Somehow, other things replaced my original ideas. I can do stuff in my living room, just by myself, that you can't seem to get in the studio."

Hicks, though, is no stranger to the sound booth -- his early LPs, Original Recordings, Where's the Money?, Striking It Rich, and Last Train to Hicksville, are all models of sleekness and economy. Live, he's no slouch, either, as his 1994 concert album, Shootin' Straight, demonstrates. Even his early, home recordings are catchy and inventive, as a recent Big Beat Records collection shows. Palao, who compiled the 1967 demos, says the disc came together almost by happenstance.

"I had a magazine called Cream Puff War, and we did a large story on the Charlatans and interviewed all the members of the band -- all the surviving members, that is. Later, I was working on another tape archive with the original manager of the Kingston Trio, Frank Werber, who had a studio in San Francisco in the mid-'60s, and I came across all this stuff that Dan had recorded there around the time he was starting to move away from the Charlatans. This was the very early Hot Licks, with David LaFlamme playing violin, and it was very much pure Dan, without the western swing affectations of his later work."

While Hicks is often credited as an early pioneer in the swing revival, his work always had a broader, more elusive character that went beyond western swing and '40s big bands. Loose-limbed but tightly timed, the Hot Licks style owed as much to tongue-twisting blues hipsters like Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart as it did to Bob Wills and Benny Goodman. When critics compare him to present-day swing band/string band acts like Squirrel Nut Zippers or the Hot Club of Cowtown, Hicks seems amused more than anything else. Still, not all the new bands can pass muster.

"I didn't really fit into the swing resurgence that happened a couple of years ago," says Hicks. "It was really more of an in-your-face, jump blues thing, whereas my stuff is more acoustic, and more jazzy. I'm not critical of it. What offends me though is when they take a nice old tune, like a Glenn Miller ballad, and then put a rock 'n' roll drummer on it, or a heavy-sounding, relentless bass. They think they're mixing two eras, but they're really just wiping it all out."

The new album catches Hicks at his best -- not simply undiminished as a songwriter or singer, but at a new, almost improbable, artistic peak. His vocals are as crafty as ever, shifting gracefully between velvet-toned barfly crooning and sardonic mockery. His lyrics also retain their absurdist edge, ranging from the innuendo-laden doggerel of "My Cello" to the pro-gourmand propaganda of "I Don't Want Love," wherein our hero declares, "Love makes you give up corn dogs and mustard/ Cracker Jacks and tutti-frutti custard/ If love makes you give up onion rings/ I don't want love."

Two tunes from his pre-Hot Licks days -- "He Don't Care" and "I've Got a Capo on My Brain" -- resurface on the new album, although in vastly revamped form. Hicks' best-known classic, "I Scare Myself," has also been reworked, with subtle trip-hop filigrees that are more reminiscent of Thomas Dolby's 1984 synth-pop cover version than the original. Hicks isn't sure how comfortable he is with the new mix, calling it his rap song, but he's willing to give anything a try.

"On all the rest of the album, I was there for the basics, but for that song I just gave them the chords and the tempo and the guys in L.A. took it from there. They made a track and then we sang over it. It was not my conception, and I wouldn't have even come up with that sound, but I kinda like it."

Jazz/folk singer Rickie Lee Jones supplies honeyed vocals on the new version of "I Scare Myself," as well as on "Driftin'," a new tune with a sweet Tin Pan Alley melody worthy of old masters Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. Costello, Waits, and Setzer respectively bark, mutter, and twang their way through their cameos, while Sid Page, an original Hot Licks member, anchors the album with his mellifluous, fat-toned violin playing. One of the album's catchiest tunes, "Strike While It's Hot," features a pleasantly restrained Midler trading mellow scat riffs with Hicks.

Whether Hicks plays it cool or hot at his upcoming Christmas gig at the Great American Music Hall, Alec Palao and other Hot Licks fanatics are looking forward to an all-too rare chance to catch Hicks doing what he does best: wow the crowd.

"There is no one else who is as unique as he is," Palao says. "There's no one else who sounds like Dan Hicks, who writes like him, who has that dry sense of humor, or has that manner onstage. He's really one of a kind."

About The Author

Lawrence Kay


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