A recent Al Fresco Audio Outing on my deck was spent with one of the most unusual bands of the late 1960s and ’70s, a group that crossed genres and mixed styles, led by a musician who had a bigger influence on The Music than most people realize.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks blended jazz, folk, country, swing and other styles, with more than a dash of humor and an emphasis on live performance. I only have one of their albums, but it’s Return to Hicksville, a best-of compilation from 1997 covering the band’s years with Blue Thumb Records, 1971-73.
That period culminated with Last Train to Hicksville, the group’s highest-charting LP and the album that brought a critically-acclaimed band to a wider audience. But it was also for the most part the end of the Hot Licks; although Hicks would reunite the original lineup a couple decades later, he moved on to other projects after 1973.
(I also have a Hicks solo project, It Happened One Bite. But it’s an oddity — the soundtrack for a movie that never was made, and the songwriting isn’t up to the artist’s earlier work.)
Return to Hicksville includes the work of the best-known Hot Licks lineup, starting with six songs from the band’s 1971 live album Where’s the Money. Those songs showcase the DHHL tight live musicianship, the wonderful vocals of the Lickettes, Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Maryann Price — and the bandleader’s offbeat sense of humor.
In between two of the songs, Hicks says, “You probably think it's easy being up here. Singing and everything, and playing. It's not. It's not easy. Thank you.” Later, during another break, he offers, “The next number is an instrumental. Well, it’s got some words, but it’s mostly instrumental.”
Hicks’ rather jaundiced view of life shows up in those songs, and also in the cuts from the 1972 album Strikin’ It Rich, particularly “Canned Music,” “I Scare Myself” and “Innocent Bystander”; those songs, along with “Walkin’ One and Only,” are likely the band’s best known.
I thoroughly enjoyed hearing those odd-ball lyrics, vocal harmonies and genre-bending instrumentation, and found myself wondering what Dan Hicks was up to these days. I had seen him on TV — maybe Austin City Limits? — with one of his later projects, the Acoustic Warriors, but that was a decade or two ago.
Turns out, the artist born in 1941 in Little Rock, Ark., is no longer with us, having passed away in February 2016, a victim of liver cancer. I found it hard to believe that I wasn’t aware of his death at that time; that was during a year when we lost a number of Makers of The Music — Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner — and I wrote about those deaths at the time, and recapped the losses in early 2017.
But while Hicks had continued to work on recording projects well into the 21st Century, he hadn’t done much in the last decade. And although he was involved in a band that influenced the late ’60s San Francisco music scene, his impact on The Music isn’t well known.
The only child of a career military man, Hicks was moved to the Bay Area at age five. A drummer in grade and high school, he was playing in local dance bands in his early teens and appearing on a radio program called Time Out for Teens.
Hicks began playing guitar at age 18, and became part of the San Francisco folk music revival and coffeehouse scene. In 1965, was back behind a drum set, this time with the Charlatans, a psychedelic band credited with helping kickstart San Francisco’s Summer of Love.
The Charlatans were early experimenters with LSD, and gained fame — or maybe infamy — during an extended engagement in Virginia City, Nev. Members of the band also were credited with creating the first psychedelic rock concert poster art.
The band never landed a long-term recording contract and created only a couple albums. Before leaving the Charlatans, Hicks ended up on rhythm guitar, playing his own compositions as frontman.
He left the Charlatans in 1967, two years before they broke up, and formed the Hot Licks. His original violinist was David LaFlamme, who would leave the following year to form It’s a Beautiful Day. The lineup on the first DHHL album, 1969’s Original Recordings, lasted only until 1971. That album included songs that would appear on Strikin’ It Rich and Where’s the Money?
After the “classic” DHHL lineup was dissolved by Hicks, and after the movie soundtrack project, he formed the Acoustic Warriors, which recorded one live album, in 1994. (That band included sometime Grateful Dead member Brian Godchaux.)
Hicks reformed a new Hot Licks band for the 2000 album Beatin’ the Heat, which featured a star-studded list of guest artists: Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Brian Setzer and Tom Waits. A different band backed him on 2004’s Selected Shorts, which also included some guest stars, like Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson and Van Dyke Parks.
(Hicks was apparently a significant influence on Costello, who I consider to be one of the most important rock artists of the late ’70s and ’80s. Declan McManus — Costello’s real name — wrote the introduction to Hicks’ posthumously-published autobiography.)
Both those albums included all-new music, something for me to look into in the future, I guess. Hicks did two more albums, in 2009 and 2010; the latter appears to have been a Christmas album, but I couldn’t find out much info about either.
Will have to consider getting one or more of the earlier DHHL albums. Return to Hicksville may well include Hicks’ best early stuff, but my problem with “best of” and “greatest hits” albums is that they’re somebody else’s idea of what’s best or greatest. And when it comes to Hicks, and his Hot Licks, even the outtakes could be entertaining.