Singer-songwriter Dan Hicks gets his licks in
The Aspen Times
Dan Hicks sees a downside to being closely identified with a very specific style of music. Hicks writes a song with a particular rhythm, an identifiable instrumentation, a signature sense of humor, and it sounds like nothing but a Dan Hicks song.
“Sometimes I think the stuff I write is going to be so specific to me,” the singer and guitarist said from his home in Mill Valley, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. “That’s good. And then it’s not good. Pop stars aren’t getting in line to do my tunes.”
As it turns out, though, plenty of singers and musicians are perfectly happy to take a crack at Hicks’ tunes, as long as Hicks is there to guide them through it. The 2007 album “Duets” had Hicks paired with Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Elvis Costello and other vocal partners on songs including Hicks originals “I Scare Myself” and “Barstool Boogie.” On April 6, 2012, a bunch of notable musicians, including Rickie Lee Jones, Maria Muldaur, David Grisman and John Hammond, turned out at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco to help Hicks celebrate his 70th birthday. That concert was recorded for a live album that was released this week.
When necessary to categorize his music, Hicks typically uses the phrase “folky swing,” or, for the sake of variety, “swinging folk.” But probably a better name is “hot licks,” after the band that Hicks has led for most of the past four decades. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks — which features rhythms rooted in ’20s swing, a pair of female singers and a second guitarist playing a pre-bebop take on jazz — plays tonight at PAC3 in Carbondale, in a release party for the new album, “Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks: Live at Davies.”
Hicks, who grew up in northern California, gravitated toward jazz rhythms as a kid. He started playing drums in grade school. In junior high, he participated in noon-time jam sessions, and his parents were impressed enough by his devotion that, when Hicks was 17, his parents paid for private lessons.
When Hicks was 20, the folk invasion hit. By then he had cultivated a love for the drummers of the big band era — Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson, Shelly Manne, Joe Morello — but he was happy to open his ears to the sounds of the Kingston Trio.
“That widened my horizons right there,” he said. “I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 — Odetta, Bob Dylan, Jim Kweskin. And the old blues guys — Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt. I liked everybody. I took up folk guitar and started learning folk songs.”
Shortly after the folk boom, northern California was overrun by another music wave. Hicks found himself in the midst of the psychedelic rock happening, drafted to be the drummer in the Charlatans. The group landed a gig at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada in late 1964. The hippies came crawling out, and Hicks was in the middle of San Francisco’s ’60s scene.
“We came back to the city, and all the dances started happening, the Fillmore, the Avalon,” Hicks said. “We were part of the scene. They said we were the first band, and that might be true.”
The Charlatans might have launched the scene, but Hicks would never claim responsibility for what followed. He found rock too loud, the Charlatans too disorganized. Even in the moment, he hardly felt a part of the movement, or even of the Charlatans.
“Me being the drummer, I considered it me and them,” he said. “They were the guitarists, and I could say, ‘They were good, or they were not so good. I was a rock appreciator up to a point. My real stuff was folk and jazz.”
The Charlatans, who didn’t achieve the commercial heights of the Jefferson Airplane or the longevity of the Grateful Dead, were merely a detour for Hicks on his way to putting together his two musical loves. What he assembled was unusual and unique. A defining aspect of the group, which he called Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, was humor, which Hicks traces to his being an only child, trying to keep his parents entertained. Among his songs is “Hell, I’d Go,” about alien abduction; and “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me).” But more of a signature was the instrumentation: a couple of female singers, two swing guitarists. There was no drummer; the singers kept the beat with hand percussion.
“It was just the sound I wanted to make, with that personality,” he said. “It’s a good combination for me — the Django guitar” — a reference to Django Reinhardt, a gypsy guitarist from the early 20th century — “the girls singing. I’m the only guy who has that arrangement.”
After just a few years and a few albums, Hicks grew tired of being a bandleader. Through the ’70s, he experimented with different instrumentation, different band names, including the Acoustic Warriors, and even male singers over female. In 2000, Surfdog, a Southern California label, signed Hicks, with a particular idea.
“They said, ‘Use the girls, use the old name,’” Hicks recalled. “They slowly talked me into it. I hadn’t missed it at all — been there, done that. But I’m glad I went that direction again. I like making that sound. It’s my brand. I like it because people know it, and they like it.”
When Hicks reassembled the Hot Licks 13 years ago, it was apparent that Hicks had some fans in high places. His comeback album, “Beatin’ the Heat,” featured guest singers Brian Setzer, Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones. The album did well, and Hicks has toured and recorded steadily since.
Around San Francisco, Hicks plays sometimes in a combo called Bayside Jazz. The small combo plays standards, with Hicks out front as a stand-up singer, doing what he calls “the Mel Tormé thing.” “It’s another kind of music I’m making, with piano, maybe a horn, drums,” he said. “It’s a different thing, a different direction. I’m not strapped with the guitar. I can put more attention on the singing. And I can surprise myself with what I can do as a vocalist.”
Hicks plays tonight at PAC3 in Carbondale, and there are no surprises planned. It will be Hicks with his Hot Licks — a five-piece version with a pair of female singers, a lead guitarist and a musician who switches between violin and mandolin.
“When you say, ‘Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks will be there,’ people expect a certain thing,” Hicks said. “It can’t be three tuba players.”
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