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EARLY MUSES (Big Beat Records CDWIKD 183) [1967-1968]





DAN HICKS & THE ACOUSTIC WARRIORS: SHOOTIN’ STRAIGHT (On The Spot/Private Music 01005-82118-2) [1994]

DAN HICKS & THE HOT LICKS: BEATIN’ THE HEAT (Surfdog Records SD-67113-2) [2000]

Recently I saw Dan Hicks live. He was playing at a local club more often host to bluegrass and folk singers. Hicks told the audience he played "folk swing."

Hicks was with his Hot Licks, including the Lickettes. The band consists of two guitars (Hicks plays rhythm, although there was one brief solo outburst), violin and stand-up bass. (It's one of those fretboard-only "travelling" basses. "Charles Mingus played one once, and that's good enough for us," Hicks said.) Hicks plays brushes on a snare drum for part of the set (he was originally a drummer) and the Lickettes manipulate percussion devices, but There Is No Drummer.

Hicks’ voice – velvet swoops from falsettos to deep bass, impeccable timing, total control – makes him a pleasure just to listen to as a singer, and he sang a broad range of songs, ranging from many of his own to a Jon Hendricks jazz ballad. The music was hip. It was hip to the late sixties San Francisco, and hip to the forties jazz scene, and even hip to old twenties blues ("Bring it with you baby when you come"). Overall, his music, a blend of many influences from forties jump bands to King Pleasure to early rock & roll, is hot jive, and just exactly retro enough to catch on with fans of the ersatz swing of groups like the Squirrel Nut Zippers. And it’s better.

It was a solid set, with two returns for encores, the second encore following a brief period when the house lights went up but people kept on pounding their hands together. Hicks was in good form between songs, too -- but at first too subtle for the lighting guy, whom he requested in past tense and third person to turn down one pink light that spotlighted him. When he asked for the light to "get fucked" a song later it was quickly diminished.

After that performance I headed out to pick up a copy of Hicks' new album. It’s his eighth, and the seventh out on CD. (His 1978 album for Warner Bros., IT HAPPENED ONE BITE, remains unreleased on CD.)

I started buying Dan Hicks albums with his first solo album, ORIGINAL RECORDINGS, which came out in 1969 on Epic, the Columbia Records subsidiary. I knew he had been a member of the West Coast band, the Charlatans, but I’d never heard them. ORIGINAL RECORDINGS was designed to look like the reissue of classic recordings made in an earlier era; Hicks is shown in what looks like an old tintype photo, tricked out in 19th century cowboy duds, leaning on a guitar, a dog at his feet.

Listening to it, I discovered a brand new gem of an album, made up of fascinatingly catchy music, full of subtle production tricks which weren’t per se psychedelic but had that effect, like out-of-phase voices and a female chorus which had a disquieting way of commenting on the lyrics. Hicks’ songs were full of wry observations and occasionally more. The titles tell you a lot: "Canned Music," "How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away," "I Scare Myself," "Shorty Takes A Dive," Waiting for the ‘103’," "Shorty Falls in Love," "Milk Shakin’ Mama," "Jukies’ Ball," among others. Shorty was a ventriloquist’s dummy who played a role in some of the songs.

Virtually every track of that album is perfect, each song now a classic. Thomas Dolby covered "I Scare Myself" on his second album, back in the eighties – a reminder of Hicks’ contribution to rock music.

But earlier, in 1967 and 1968, Hicks recorded a number of demos – including most of the songs which would be used on ORIGINAL RECORDINGS – which were released in 1998 on the album EARLY MUSES. It’s an excellent "missing link" album (and includes one 1953 track recorded on a 78 rpm recorder by Hicks as a young boy who even then had stage presence), with 20 tracks of mostly straightforward singing and accompaniment.

In 1968 Hicks formed the Hot Licks to perform that material. Like the current band of that name it was a mostly acoustic string band with a violin. Hicks favors violin players (like Sid Page, who has been on all the Hot Licks records) who combine the jazz flair of a Stephane Grappelli with the funky fiddling of a Stuff Smith. But it was the Lickettes (always two female singers) who pushed the music up another notch. Theirs was a Greek chorus, sarcastically questioning Hicks’ stories and adding commentary of their own, sometimes slyly extending his lyrics in the chorus.

Hicks was a product of the same time and place (as well as many of the same country-folk influences) which produced the Grateful Dead but he made music at right angles to theirs, and yet wholly compatible with theirs. There was a "stoned" quality to the sensibility behind the lyrics as well as to the sly humor.

But apparently the album didn’t sell well enough to convince Epic to do another. Hicks went unrecorded for more than a year until he was picked up by Blue Thumb, an iconoclastic label of the early seventies now wholly subsumed in the MCA-Universal music empire. Blue Thumb released three albums in three years, all now on CD from MCA with minimal packaging (in direct contrast to the imaginatively die-cut LP packages – STRIKING IT RICH was designed as a huge matchbook, for example) and erroneous copyright info.

The Blue Thumb albums lack some of the cleverness and subtlety of ORIGINAL RECORDINGS; they are a trifle more "ordinary," a bit more safely within the genre of country swing. They also included re-recorded songs from ORIGINAL RECORDINGS: "Shorty Falls In Love" reappears on WHERE’S THE MONEY, and "I Scare Myself" and "Canned Music" are used again on STRIKING IT RICH – albeit by a somewhat different band and in different arrangements. Interestingly, songs originally demoed in the sixties and released on EARLY MUSES, like "O’Reilly at the Bar," "The Laughing Song" and "The Euphonius Whale," continue to crop up on these albums.

There was a long period in which I lost track of Hicks. Then I caught him with a new band on the short-lived but excellent NBC music show, Sunday Night. And a few years later he released Shootin' Straight, a live album. The Acoustic Warriors were the usual Hicks-style string band, plus a pianist who doubled on "jazz accordion." The material is good, but the best thing about the album is Hicks’ between-songs commentary – which give some of the flavor of the set I saw recently. Hicks explains and introduces his songs, responds to audience comments, and gets off a few observations.

When I saw him he played a number of songs from his new album. And each time he mentioned its name, the Lickettes would chime in enthusiastically and harmonically, "Beat, beat, beatin’ the heat!" The album could be considered a comeback album – it is a comeback for The Hot Licks – but it includes several songs from the EARLY MUSES days, like "He Don’t Care" and "I’ve Got A Capo On My Brain," as well as yet another "I Scare Myself."

The big deal about the album, however, is its "guest stars." Rickie Lee Jones sings on "I Scare Myself" and "Driftin’," Brian Setzer plays guitar on "I Don’t Want Love" and "Meet Me On The Corner," Bette Midler sings on "Strike It While It’s Hot," Tom Waits sings on "I’ll Tell You Why That Is" and contributes the song, "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)," and Elvis Costello sings on "Meet Me On The Corner." For the most part these "guest" contributions neither harm nor enhance the music and it remains, fortunately, a Dan Hicks album. The sound and production are also more contemporary and offer a wider variety of settings for Hicks’ songs.

In 1969 what Hicks was doing – his unique combination of musical
influences – sounded strikingly new and original. Now it has a good-timey, nostalgic quality – without having really changed very much at all. Fortunately, Hicks hasn’t really changed either, remaining true to his musical muses. It’s the world which has changed, and maybe now it’s ready for Hicks.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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