Setting the pace for acousto-nut stringbanders like Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Asylum Street Spankers, Marin County's genius curmudgeon recluse, Dan Hicks (1941-2016) was one of the great cult faves of the hippiedelic '60s and '70s. Who would have suspected, all those years ago when the San Francisco hippies were running around dressed in Victorian and Edwardian thrift store clothes, that Hicks actually meant it?? A retro-maniac with the chops and sardonic wit to back it up, Hicks combined rootsy folk and blues along with Tin Pan Alley melodic swing, and tromped way ahead of the pack in the acoustic revival. While many of the '60s jug bands stuck to a scholarly blues booziness, Hicks hinted at a higher level of nudge-nudge, wink-wink sarcastic expression... He dropped out of sight fairly early on, but bobbed back up from time to time, always with fine results. Here's a quick look at his legacy...
The Charlatans "The Amazing Charlatans" (Big Beat, 1996)
Dan Hicks was the drummer --and later guitarist -- in this legendary (weren't they all?) San Fran psychedelic outfit. The Charlatans were one of those San Fran hippie bands who fell through the cracks as far as commercial success went. Signed to a dying, rather square, label (Kapp), their recorded output was slight -- this CD collects the best of it. While SF Sound enthusiasts may find the heavier, fuzzed-out rock material compelling, for me the highlights are Hicks' trademark novelty songs, such as the wonderfully mean-spirited "We're Not On The Same Trip," an early blueprint for future masterpieces. Hicks left the band in 1968, after starting up his own group, The Hot Licks.
Dan Hicks "Early Muses" (Ace/Big Beat, 1998)
A cool collection of early demo recordings made in 1967-'68, while Hicks was contemplating a solo career. A bunch of these songs wound up, in more elaborate form, on various Hot Licks albums... The cool thing about this disc is that several of the demos are better, or have a different impact than the fuller studio versions (especially "Canned Music" ...) Another surprise is how fully conceived the material was, even at this early date. The sequencing on this disc (compiled by Bay Area '60s archivist Alec Palao) is fab, and the liner notes and sound quality are also pretty spiffy. Fans would do well to look this one up! My fave on here: the silly lover's snit, "All Day Sucker." Highly recommended.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Original Recordings" (Epic, 1969)
His awesome debut, with many of his ultra-classic crowd-pleasers, such as "How can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away," the original version of "I Scare Myself," "Waiting For The 103", and "It's Bad Grammar, Baby"... This is the foundation of a legend, full of nostalgic jazzy hepcat jive, as filtered through an laconic hippie-era irony... This is (of course) HIGHLY recommended. (Recently re-released -- with some songs missing -- as The Most Of Dan Hicks, below...)
Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks "Where's The Money?" (Blue Thumb, 1971)
A must-have, hippie-era string-swing classic. Features "Where's The Money?", "Shorty Falls In Love," and the perky fan favorite, "Traffic Jam..." Another excellent record, with the classic Hot Licks lineup all in place.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Striking It Rich!" (Blue Thumb, 1971)
Amongst other gems, this features his version of Cole Porter's faux-cowpoke classic, "I'm An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)"... Ol' Bing Crosby couldn'ta done better himself...
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Last Train To Hicksville" (Blue Thumb, 1973)
Possibly the most accomplished and jazziest of the early Hicks albums. Although Side One falls apart when he gives some of the band members free reign in the limelight, the record stays steady and on course when it's all about Hicks. Includes some of his best songs -- for some reason "Payday Blues" (one of my Hicks favorites) doesn't seem to wind up on anthology discs, although the thriftstore ballad, "My Old Timey Baby" is another gem that does. As I said at the start, this might have been the Hot Licks finest moment, musically speaking -- Maryann Price and Naomi Eisenberg get into a slick Manhattan Transfer-style vocal groove, and the picking is also pretty solid. Falls flat on a couple of tracks, but overall it's rather swell.
Dan Hicks "It Happened One Bite" (Warner Bros, 1978)
If the liner notes are to be trusted (and I'm fairly sure they're not...) this album represents the remnants of Dan Hicks' contributions to a Ralph Bakshi movie that was shelved in 1975... In certain regards, it's easy to dismiss this as a toss-off, an easy-going retread of his old Tin Pan Alley/hokum blues schtick. And, yeah, it doesn't feel like he put a ton of effort into this recording, but it's still pretty fun to listen to. The band includes ex-Hot Lickers Maryann Price and Sid Page, augmented by a mellow crew of '70s fusioneers such as Michael Franks. Fans will not be disappointed.
Dan Hicks "Shootin' Straight" (On The Spot/Private, 1994)
A strong live set, recorded in LA's legendary folk club, McCabe's... Hicks' voice is gruffer and boozier than in his youth, but the writing is still solid, as is the backing band. Best of all, this is ALL NEW material, a real treat for old-time fans. His on-stage banter is pretty charming, too.
Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks "Beatin' The Heat" (Surfdog, 2000)
His first studio album in (gasp!) 22 years, this is disc is an absolute delight. For those of us who over the years have savored this or that favorite old Hot Licks tune, Beatin' The Heat will seem like a great old album that somehow we missed picking up 'way back when... It's got the classic Hicks feel -- loping bass lines, bouncy rhythms, and scat vocals that are are loose-limbed as they are tightly timed. Plus, the lyrics are classic Hicks material, ranging from the nutty wry aside to unabashed doggerel. The real hook here is the profusion of guest performers, including Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones and Brian Setzer. There's not a bad track on here, but standouts include "Strike While It's Hot", a duet with Midler that starts off with a near-reprise of "Wichita Lineman", and moves into some sweetly swinging hep rhythm, and "Driftin'", one of two tunes that feature Rickie Lee, and that has a lovely Harold Arlen-esque pop melodicism. Along the way, Hicks includes a trip-hop tinged remake of his classic "I Scare Myself", as well as a spaced-out cover version of Tom Waits' "The Piano Has Been Drinking", which plays tipsy to the original version's falling down dead drunk. It's an incredible record, really, that shows Mr. Hicks is not merely undiminished in his powers, but also still at the top of the form in a musical style he helped create. Highly recommended!
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "My Main Man Santa" (CD single) (Surfdog, 2000)
Dan's nutty hipster homage to jolly old Saint Nick. Sort of a blues-swing version of Miracle on 42nd Street, this single came out at the same time as the Beatin' The Heat album.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Alive & Lickin' " (Surfdog, 2001)
Live recordings from the reconstituted Hot Licks crew, made in Y2K when they toured to support Beatin' The Heat. Naturally, the best part is Hicks himself... He knows his audience pretty well and his dissolute stage patter gets 'em every time. Mostly oldies, with a couple of tunes off the new album, including his version of "The Piano Has Been Drinking." An old pro, working the crowd with time-honored tricks.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks" (CD & DVD) (Surfdog, 2003)
Hicks's sixtieth birthday was kind of a big deal around San Francisco... Sure, they used to say, "never trust anyone over sixty," or something like that, but one thing was for sure: a lot of talented old-timers were gonna show up for this big bash. This CD/DVD set documents a concert held at the fabled Warfield Auditorium, with pals such as Mike Wilhelm (of the Charlatans), Sid Paige, David LaFlamme, and ex-members of sundry lineups of the Hot Licks and the Acoustic Warriors.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks" (DVD) (Surfdog, 2003)
You can also get just the DVD by itself...
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Selected Shorts" (Surfdog, 2004)
I'm a big Dan Hicks fan and have all his records, etc., although this one is, admittedly, a little hard to get into... My first couple of listens left me scratching my head; the songs seemed so cluttered and manic it was hard for me to get into. So, I set the album aside for a couple of months, came back to it, and was able to better appreciate it on its own terms. It's certainly Hicksian kookiness, with droll, not-quite-nonsensical lyrics and an odd fusion of pop-rock andswinging retro-jazz that picks up where his last album left off... However, the songs on this album lacks the cohesiveness and sharp focus of Beatin' The Heat, and Hicks seems to be straining at the formula a bit. It sounds like what it is: an indie album by acrusty old local who still loves to jam with his pals and play oldies along with his own idiosyncratic original tunes. Devoted fans will want to have this record around to keep the collection complete, but it's not the first album I would think of if I was going to try and turn someone new onto his music.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Duets" (Surfdog, 2007)
Dan Hicks "Canned Music" (DVD) (All Stars, 2008)
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Tangled Tales" (Surfdog, 2009)
(Produced by Chris Goldsmith)
Another intoxicating album from this hippie-string/swing veteran... Dan Hicks has been playing his unique mix of old-fashioned swing, blues and country for several decades now, goosing the tunes with kooky, goofball lyrics and plenty of retro savvy. This sizzling set, like all his albums, features contributions from his wide circle of friends, people that he's jammed with for years and who are completely on his wavelength. They seem to share a group musical telepathy, as well as a love of the lore of old-timey tunes, so when the band zips its way through some groovy riffs, doubling the leads on guitar, fiddle or mandolin, it's as if some lost old 78 by Milton Brown or Cliff Carlisle has been mashed up with a modern dada offering by Beck, or, well... like a classic old Dan Hicks record. Indeed, some of these songs are reworkings of tunes he'd recorded a few years back, while others include well-chosen covers from Bob Dylan and Horace Silver. Along for the ride are acoustic music heavyweights such as Richard Greene and David Grisman, as well as bluesmen Charlie Musselwhite and Roy Rogers. It's Marin County musicmaking at its finest: nice to see the old coot still making great music.
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "The Very Best Of..." (See for Miles, 1991)
I haven't heard this disc myself, but I'm a big fan of the See For Miles label, so I'm sure this is a top-flight collection...
Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks "Return To Hicksville: Best Of The Blue Thumb Years: 1971-1973" (MCA/Hip-O, 1997)
A tasty best-of, drawn from the early '70s albums on Blue Thumb. There are a few minor engineering tweaks here and there, as well as an alternate take or two. Basically, a very solid collection of classic Hot Licks material.
Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks "The Most Of..." (Sony Legacy, 2001)
By "most of," they mean most of his 1969 Original Recordings debut album, along with a bunch of previously unreleased demo tracks, mainly material that showed up on later LPs. This is a great CD, although I have to admit to a great pang of regret that they chose to prune the fuzzed-out electric rock parody "It's Bad Grammar, Baby" from the set... It's one of my favorite Hicks tunes, and I'm sad to see it go... Otherwise, for folks looking to upgrade their scratchy old Hot Licks albums, this is pretty swell. The bonus material is a lot of fun, too -- a real treasure trove for folks who are used to the official versions...!
The Christmas Jug Band "Mistletoe Jam" (Relix/Globe Records)
A hippie old-timers roots music holiday album, with Hicks sitting in on the proceedings. Dan Hicks and a slew of his Bay Area buddies slide and elide through a warm, fuzzy set of goofy roots-music holiday tunes. Includes clever remakes of old jazz standards ("I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Christmas Card," a "Gee, Rudolph (Ain't I Good To You)" that would make Ellington proud; a boozy, good-natured whirl at "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town...) There are also a bunch of much-welcome originals, such as "Somebody Stole My Santa Suit" and "X-Mas Shopping Blues," all delivered with a blend of blues, jazz, country and even a bit of zydeco and Celtic music thrown in for good measure. Kooky, original and fun!
The Christmas Jug Band "Rhythm On The Roof" (Globe, 1997)
The Christmas Jug Band "Treeside Hoot" (Globe, 1999)
The Christmas Jug Band "Uncorked" (Globe, 2002)
A great, groovy, well-produced and really good-natured set of original roots-blues holiday tunes... The album kicks off with the deliciously off-color "Santa Lost A Ho" and zips through a series of similarly silly, likeable novelty tunes. The players are cherry-picked from the ranks of overly-talented Bay Area musicians -- mostly fellows whose names you wouldn't recognize, though roots divas Maria Muldaur and Angela Strehli drop in for a duet on "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" and Norton Buffalo resurfaces for "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas" (don't play this song for your kids: they'll only get ideas!) Overall, this is a really fun album... If you want a little break from the saccharine blechiness that passes for yuletide cheer, then this is a disc that may make your holidays fun again...!)
Hot Club Of San Francisco (1993)
Django-and-Gershwin inspired acoustic retro jazz -- Hicks guests on two tracks.
Maria Muldaur "A Woman Alone With The Blues (Remembering Peggy Lee)" (Telarc, 2003)
A soulful tribute to the late Peggy Lee. Dan Hicks duets with Muldaur on "Winter Weather," one of Lee's signature songs...
Maryann Price "Etched In Swing" (Watermelon, 1993)
Former Hot Licks vocalist, with Hicks sitting in on one song.
Hick Music Index