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Return to Hicksville

Stewart Oksenhorn

Some 35 years ago, Dan Hicks played a significant role in what would come to be seen as a vital event in the rock ‘n’ roll story.In 1965, Hicks was a budding performer on the San Francisco-area scene, when he was recruited by George Hunter to join his electric band, the Charlatans. The Charlatans needed a drummer, and Hicks had played drums, for the flag corps in junior high, and later in dance bands, in his teens. Hicks joined up, and soon found himself playing a three-month, six-nights-a-week stint at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, a former mining town in Nevada, roughly in between Reno and Carson City.The gig was like no other around at the time. The Red Dog had taken on a Wild West theme that summer. The Charlatans, who lived upstairs from the bar, were encouraged to play long, loud sets, with few restraints on what they could do, musically or in the presentation.Most extraordinary were the crowds. All summer long, young longhairs looking for something different came from as far as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, mixing with the locals from Lake Tahoe and the Virginia City. Psychedelic drugs like pot and acid flourished, and the people danced as wildly as they dressed.It was the first true hippie gig.”That was the neatest. That was the best,” said Hicks. “It was a full-time job, six nights a week. We lived upstairs and everybody was cool, smoked pot. It was the neatest thing to be a part of. The people looked different; they were different.Hicks stayed with the Charlatans until late in the ’60s, becoming an central, though largely forgotten part of the legendary San Francisco rock scene. In many ways, it was that summer at the Red Dog that ushered in the hippie era, and with it came a new way of playing music, of connecting to the audience, of putting on a concert.”I feel that it had a lot to do with it,” said Hicks. “Call it what you want – hippie bands, or underground, or bohemian, or longhaired – the Charlatans were the very beginning group for that in San Francisco. There were more common bands, like the Vegetables and the Beau Brummels, but they were more commercial.”We were the friends of the hippies. So when the first dances were organized at the end of the summer in San Francisco, it was us.”That Dan Hicks would seem to have little in common with the Dan Hicks who will make his first-ever Aspen appearance this weekend. The Dan Hicks who plays at Hannibal Brown’s on Sunday, Jan. 21, will be singing and playing guitar, not drumming. The music will have almost no connection to the jam-filled psychedelic blues-rock that filled the Red Dog Saloon so many years ago. Instead, Hicks will play an acoustic music that is part jazz swing, part Texas swing. And Hicks won’t be performing with the Charlatans, but with the band he put together while he was still banging drums with the Charlatans. This Dan Hicks will be the Dan Hicks of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. Same guy, different musician.Hicks, who had been first influenced by jazzers like Benny Goodman, and folk acts like the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, began to stray from the Charlatans in 1968, when he gained an interest in guitar and began losing interest in rock ‘n’ roll. Hicks put together a band that featured violin, upright bass, himself on acoustic guitar, and, perhaps most distinctive of all, a pair of women to back him on vocals. The group put its sound behind Hick’s offhanded voice and songs with a fairly twisted sense of humor, like “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” Hicks and the Hot Licks released a quick string of albums – the self-titled debut in 1969; the 1971 live album, “Where’s the Money?” which included several tunes from the Charlatans’ repertoire; 1972’s “Striking It Rich” and 1973’s “Last Train to Hicksville” – that made the Hot Licks’ sound recognizable in a cluttered music world. The band toured internationally, and became a favorite on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Hicks landed on the cover of the Rolling Stone not once, but twice.But all was not perfect in Hot Licks-land. “It Happened One Bite,” released in 1976, turned out to be the band’s farewell card.”I’d just gotten tired of being a bandleader,” said Hicks, now 59. “We had personality problems. It wasn’t like how I started it. And I figured, I was the main guy. If I want, I can go out and do something different.”So I quit. It was just like quitting a job.”Hicks quit the Hot Licks, but not the music. At least, not entirely. In the mid-’80s, he put together a touring band, the Acoustic Warriors, who put out a barely noticed live album in 1994. He guested on albums, including one by singer-songwriter Michael Franks and a children’s record by Maria Muldaur.A few years ago Hicks was ready to make another album. Record labels, looking over his recent history, were not exactly banging on his door. “I was ready to make an album, even though my track record wouldn’t seem like it,” said Hicks. But Dave Kaplan, a talent manager and longtime Hicks fan, came to Hicks with an offer, and an idea. Kaplan would help him get the record made. And how would Hicks feel about giving the record the Hot Licks name and sound?Hicks went for the idea, and so did several big-name singers. With the help of Kaplan and co-producer Gary Hoey, Hicks got Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Bette Midler to make vocal contributions to the album that would eventually become “Beatin’ the Heat,” the first Hot Licks recording in nearly 25 years.It’s entirely possible that “Beatin’ the Heat” would have been virtually ignored if not for the appearances of all the notable guest vocalists. But the fact is that, with Elvis, Rickie Lee, et al, “Beatin’ the Heat” has received considerable positive recognition. “It’s a surprise that it would get reviewed so extensively,” said Hicks. “USA Today, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.”Take away all the guest singers, though, and “Beatin’ the Heat” remains a breath of fresh air. There is no singer quite like Hicks, with his casual hip phrasing. Hicks’ songwriting is as singular as his voice; no one else could come up with skewed songs like “I Don’t Want Love”: “Love makes you give up corn dogs & mustard, Cracker Jacks & tutti frutti custard/If love makes you give up onion rings, I don’t want love.”But more than anything, what makes “Beatin’ the Heat” a treat is that Hot Licks sound. Apart from Hicks, there is only one original Hot Licks member on the new record, violinist Sid Page, whose parts had to be added after the original violinist for the sessions wasn’t getting a satisfactory sound. There is the upright acoustic bass and, more than anything, the two female vocalists, Karla De Vito and noted actress Jessica Harper, who mostly respond to Hicks’ lead vocals. There are also piano and mandolin and string parts to fill out the sound on various songs, but that Hot Licks sound comes shining through.”Just adding the girls is the main thing, getting that vocal thing happening. As opposed to not,” said Hicks. “I view the name Hot Licks as a sound – guitar, violin and the girls. Basically, that’s what makes it a Hot Licks album.”Hicks said he certainly could have used the Hot Licks name without the Hot Licks sound: “I can use the name if I want. It could be a guy playing dental floss and a guy playing tuba and a dog screaming, and I could call that a Hot Licks album.”But chances are the floss-tuba-dog-scream combo would not get Hicks as enthused about touring as his current group of violinist/mandolinist Brian Godchaux, guitarist Tom Mitchell, bassist Steve Alcott and singers Annabelle Cruz and Susan Rabin. It is the sound, not the name, that is reviving Hicks.”I like getting on the stage with that sound,” he said. “It’s a real gas. It gives me confidence. It’s like, you gotta dig this. I don’t think I’ll go back to some other band kind of thing. I’ll stick with this, with the two girls, for a while.”


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