Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
By Rex Butters
NoCal city slicker Dan Hicks brought a crackling edition of the Hot Licks to the venerable show room stage at McCabe's. And, he threw the audience a substantial curve ball. Rather than performing his own substantial catalogue of beloved classics, Hicks took the sold out house on an extended history of American Folk Music. Billed on his website as "A Salute to the Folk Years," Professor Hicks read prepared historical contexts and artists' bios as song introductions, usually interjecting wry comments. On one roll call of artists, he mentioned Jean Ritchie and Richie Havens, then pointed out they weren't related.
"Do you think he'll sign?" a woman asked me, whipping out a thirty year old mint promo LP of Hicks' It Happened One Bite. Weirdly, the signing question murmured throughout the crowd of well-seasoned Hicks-heads, culminating in a fan stopping the show between songs to get an autograph. Is there an Ebay gold rush on Dan Hicks' signature and I'm the last to know?
"I love this stage," Hicks began, but after awhile with the unrelenting main spotlight drilled into his eyes, he decided it was more like "playing some kind of weird meat locker." After the Martin Mull-ish prepared intro that named artists "from Flatt and Scruggs to Sebastian Cabot," the band got things going with Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. Regular fiddler Richard Chon didn't make the trip and Xmas Jug Band regular Adam Gabriel replaced him on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Dave Bell handled the intricate leads, Paul Smith played bass, and Lickettes Roberta Donnay and Daria, handled backing vocals and percussion.
Complaining of a sore throat and introducing himself as Don Imus, Hicks led a medley of I Got an Old Tom Cat/Walk Right In. He read a list of groups influential on his music, by way of introducing the Kingston Trio's Scotch and Soda. Arranged in bluesy jazz chords, the song sounded like a Hicks' original. His lazy delivery provided a great vocal and his skillful scatting made this an evening's high point. For the Carter Family cover, Jimmy Brown the Newsboy, Hicks took a rare turn on autoharp. The instrument had a loose price tag on a string taped to it, possibly a subtle Minnie Pearl reference.
Dan featured the Lickettes on Buffy St. Marie's Cod'ine, and it was after Daria and Roberta's respective solos that a fan, certainly old enough to know better, stopped the show for an autograph. Elizabeth Cotton's Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie put the guitars into a beautiful roll. With a nod to the Weavers ("Pete Seeger must have a few bucks by now. Damn."), Hicks launched into an atypically sincere reading of If I Had a Hammer. Leading the work song, Catch A Line, Hicks observed that Alan Lomax first heard the song "just south of Pico Blvd." A lowdown version of Hoyt Axton's Greenback Dollar, led into the Kweskin Jug Band tribute, Jug Band Music, with Daria taking a strong kazoo solo.
Coming full circle, the band launched I Feel Like Singing, giving Hicks another excuse to display his excellent scatting. The encore of I Scare Myself brought class to an end. With his jazz roots explored in Bayside Jazz, and singing cowboy tributes in his past, Dan Hicks' current show underscores the impact the folk boom had on shaping his unique songwriting sensibilities. A surprisingly concise and thorough investigation, Hicks' tribute will inform those not familiar with the subject, and be a welcome reminder for period veterans.