At age 60, Dan Hicks may be the most under-appreciated singer-songwriter to come out of San Francisco’s summer of love, but it’s not for talent or want of trying. The guitarist can swing like Django and scat like Ella, but his arch sense of humor informs a cast of hipster characters worthy of Tom Waits.
An Air Force brat from Little Rock, Ark., Hicks grew up listening to Country & Western music and started out playing drums in a jazz combo. He picked up the guitar to front the Hot Licks, which–beginning in 1969–released four albums that remain unparalleled for their masterful string band arrangements, exquisite melodies and note-perfect three-part harmonies. Not to mention their sense of humor, epitomized in tunes like “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”
Their popularity took them to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and twice landed Hicks on the cover of Rolling Stone. But following the band’s breakup following 1973’s Last Train to Hicksville, Hicks never seemed to get his due.
In 1975, he wrote the soundtrack for Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature, It Happened One Bite, but the film never got released, leaving Hicks’ soundtrack to languish in vinyl cutout bins, where diligent searchers might still find it today. While the equally droll musical comedian Martin Mull graduated to acting gigs in films and on TV shows like Roseanne, Hicks, a consummate musician, couldn’t surpass his original success.
But he continued to play, assembling The Acoustic Warriors, a band with an even tighter and wide-ranging hold on Hicks’ mix of gypsy swing, folk and jazz than the Hot Licks. And his sense of humor remained evident, whether in his tortured lyrics (“My mother died from asbestos/ My father’s name was Estus”) or his longing to be abducted by aliens (“Hell, I’d Go!”).
Following a 1996 reissue of music from Hicks’ acid-soaked ’60s band, The Amazing Charlatans, their cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codeine Blues” made its way onto the Boys Don’t Cry soundtrack. Beatin’ the Heat, released in 2000 and billed as Hick’s first new recording with the Hot Licks, actually featured only one of the original members (violinist Sid Page) but made up the difference with a series of all-star duets with Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Brian Setzer, Bette Midler and Tom Waits himself.
Alive & Lickin‘, his new release, does serviceable remakes of original Hot Licks material in a live setting featuring none of the original band–but it’s notable for featuring straight-out versions of jazz standards like “Caravan,” and “Four Brothers,” along with the hidy-ho call and response of “Four or Five Times.”
The Triangle’s Bill and Libby Hicks (no relation) are fans, too: Their South of Nowhere CD features covers of two Hicks tunes. And Hicks’ deadpan patter at live shows is worth the price of admission: During an extended tuning break on 1994’s Shootin’ Straight, he admitted, “We’re not the Grateful Dead … they can play for seven hours in a row and not tune once.”