Hicksville revisited

It’s hard to believe nearly 30 years have passed since the inimitable Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks played their last note. Hicks himself feels the same. “There’s a couple of missing decades in there,” he admits with a laugh.

“But if I look at a picture of myself now and a picture of myself then, I guess it does seem that long ago,” he continues. “Although when [former Hot Licks violinist] Sid Page was in the studio [with me] last week, he made a few references — little in-jokes that we had before — and it sort of seemed like it wasn’t that long ago.”

Hicks has just begun work on a new Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks release, 26 years after the unforgettable Last Train to Hicksville (Blue Thumb) made the quirky singer/guitarist an underground star.

Of his new label, Surf Dog, Hicks relates enthusiastically, “They’re an aggressive company. They want [me to] make videos and do everything. … It’s exciting. So all I’ve got to do is drop about 20 more pounds, so I look better, and I’m back.” He pauses, then shouts with a laugh, “I’m back!”

Hicks has exhibited remarkable buoyancy throughout his career — even if his profile has dipped considerably over the past three decades. In between record contracts, he’s stayed afloat by writing and performing for television and radio commercials and movie soundtracks, acting in independent films, and touring America, Canada, England and Japan.

The good-natured Californian just keeps coming back, in fact.

In 1995, Hicks released Shootin’ Straight (Private) with a new band, the Acoustic Warriors — ending a 16-year recording hiatus. Typically tongue-in-cheek, the album features titles like “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” “Canned Music” and the UFO fantasy “Hell, I’d Go!”

Return to Hicksville (Hip-O Records 1998) is a “best of” compilation, serving up 16 of the most memorable Hot Licks tracks from their three Blue Thumb releases between ’71 and ’73 — some of which were later covered by the likes of Bette Midler, Maria Muldaur and Thomas Dolby.

“The [Hot Licks] sound just evolved,” Hicks explains. “There were a lot of things I liked — Jim Kweskin’s jug band, Joe Venuti with Eddie Lang, the Boswells. Bob Wills was certainly an influence. But I never copied. I always wanted to phrase things originally.”

Los Angeles Times music writer Robert Hilburn suggests, “Think of Hicks as the early-’70s equivalent of the Squirrel Nut Zippers — only far more original and fun.”

Hicks grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif. — about an hour north of San Francisco. By the time the Summer of Love rolled around, he was gigging at legendary San Francisco ballrooms like The Fillmore, The Matrix and The Avalon, with San Francisco rock group The Charlatans. “I didn’t really dictate [my own] taste in The Charlatans; maybe that’s why I got out,” he confides. “I was the drummer, and then I was a rhythm-guitar player and occasional singer. But I was kind of on somebody else’s trip, you might say. I’d been working the local folk circuit a little bit as a single, and I really wanted to be a singer. I’d been a drummer since I was 10, so I wanted to be a singer/songwriter/guitar player.”

Starting Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks in 1969, he provided a softer, more swinging alternative to the city’s psychedelic rock. His lazy phrasing and mellow vocal tone recall Hoagy Carmichael and Mose Allison. “I got that from being a jazzer, really,” he explains. “Folk music and jazz are my two favorite styles. I guess a little bit of country went into what I was doing, too.”

Hicks is largely self-taught on guitar — and humble about his talents, too. “When I was 19, a friend of mine came back from school for Christmas vacation and was playing guitar,” he remembers, “so I wanted to do it, too. I got a book with the first three chords and started strumming and singing, and just kept going with that. I kind of applied my drumming-rhythm thing to the guitar. Sometimes people think I know a lot more chords than I do. They think I’m this accomplished jazz-chord guy, but really, it’s that I’m doing all these rhythms, and that kind of fools you. I’ve got a few chords. I’ve got what I do down pretty good, but I couldn’t be the rhythm-guitar player in the Benny Goodman Band. And I don’t play any lead, never did. I try sometimes, and it just sounds like Chinese or something.”

To Hicks, music is all about communication and providing a bridge to the audience — which he does in both in his lyrics and in his between-song banter. “Sometimes when we’re rehearsing, and a guy is taking a solo, I say, ‘Man, you’ve got to communicate.‘ You’ve got to be communicating to the listener. … I like to think that’s what we’re doing. I think that’s my main instrument. And I’m still aspiring, still a jazz student. I’m getting more chops, and I’m doing performances [in which] I know I’ve never sung like that before. I think I’m getting better — I hope so. My voice is what it used to be, and more.”

Hicks’ vocals were always influenced by jazz singers and smooth crooners. “I’ve been doing more standards lately, singing with piano, bass and drums — kind of a Mel Torme thing, doing ‘Stella by Starlight’ and ‘That Old Black Magic,'” he relates. “I’m sure I could do an album of standards eventually.”

On his current tour, Hicks is performing with guitarist Tom Mitchell. They do some old Hot Licks stuff, some tunes off Shootin’ Straight, and some songs, “that the world hasn’t heard yet, songs that I’ve been recording for the new project,” Hicks explains. “Surf Dog wants to bring back the Hot Licks name, and that’s OK with me.” He’s brought in a couple of female vocalists, a steel guitarist, original Hot Licks violinist Sid Page, and a few other instrumentalists, so far. “And there’ll be lots of piano,” Hicks promises. “I like the piano a lot lately.”

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