By Robert Downes
When you ask Dan Hicks what to expect from his upcoming show in Traverse
City, he counters by asking if the concert hall is big enough to
accommodate his bands elephant. We travel with a live elephant and Ill
be riding him out onto the stage, he says.
One can assume that this master of funny, thoughtful songs dredged up
from the muddy currents of Americana, swing jazz and cowboy music is
kidding. But elephant or not, at the very least you can expect to hear
some choice pickin and vocals clickin when Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks
perform at the InsideOut Gallery in TC this Monday, May 16.
Hicks, 70, has been called a National Treasure of the American music
scene by the San Francisco Chronicle for good reason. When Hicks strums
his acoustic guitar, the reverberations echo back 50 years or so to the
dawn of a revolution in music.
As a drummer with The Charlatans, playing free-form experimental music as
early as 1965, Hicks was one of the early pioneers of the psychedelic era
in San Francisco during the 60s. The Charlatans performed with such
iconic groups as the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, The Family
Dog, and Big Brother & The Holding Company at a time when they were
packing the Fillmore Ballroom, Golden Gate Park, and the hippie-filled
Haight-Ashbury with the sounds of acid rock.
But at the height of that electrifying era, Hicks took a U-turn deep into
the roots of Americana, serving up acoustic cowboy ballads, western swing,
jazz melodies and funny songs about getting drunk, stoned and
Its an affliction from which hes never recovered.
I had always been interested in folk and jazz since my junior high school
days, and I was also playing as a solo folk act around the Bay area along
with being involved in the psychedelic stuff, he says, speaking by phone
from his home in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco.
He launched his Hot Licks band with violinist David LaFlamme in 1968 as a
warmup act for The Charlatans and soon found himself going with the
acoustic flow. On songs such as I Scare Myself with its flamenco chord
progression and seductive violin solo, Hicks gave hippie-era listeners a
new avenue of mind-blowing sound to explore. And his addition of two
female singers (The Lickettes) harmonizing on songs such as Canned Music
and You Gotta Believe added a Lennon Sisters quality, which -- combined
with a stoner sensibility and the wry outlook of an R. Crumb comic -- took
folk music to places it had seldom, if ever, been.
Since then, Hicks has influenced scores of other bands, including The
Grateful Dead and Asleep at the Wheel. You can hear echos of his humor
in the work of artists such as the Rev. Horton Heat, and he presaged the
modern, post-traditional bluegrass trend by decades, exemplified today
by such bands as Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth.
But Hicks isnt resting on his laurels. These days he has a number of
projects in the works, or is at least thinking about getting started.
Im working with someone on a lyrics thing -- it will be a book of poetry
with just the lyrics of 30 of my tunes, he says. Im also working on
some songs for a new album, but first Ive got to get through some gigs
with the band throughout the Midwest.
Ive also just finished something I call the Kollege of Music
Knowledge, where I do a show that goes into the history and styles of
various forms of music, he adds. I like to do these concept things
now and then -- its a narrative that goes into the history of the
blues, swing and folk rock.
Then theres a stage play being considered in New York City called Feel
Like Singing, which would hinge on some of Hicks most popular songs,
assuming he gets it together to make it happen. A lot of it has to come
from me, and then with someone to improve whats been started.
What about new songs? Is it hard to write new stuff when theres such
high audience demand for songs written 40 years ago, such as I Scare
Im not in the shadow of them, Hicks says of his oldies. But its hard
to come up with new stuff. Im not as active as when I used to write
songs every day all fresh and new. My enthusiasm isnt what it used to
be. When youre writing a song, you want to be fresh and different and
new. The words Im good at, but with melodies you might feel that youve
done that a million times already, and that can be an obstacle to getting
Plus, Hicks adds, a great riff or a zinger of a lyric might amount to only
seven seconds of a new song. You can come up with a nice groove, but
finishing out the song is where the work is.
Speaking of songwriting, many folk artists tend toward mopey, lugubrious
themes, but Hicks is invariably upbeat and funny.
That funny stuff sort of comes more naturally, he says. But Ive got
one love song in the works and Im going to keep it going and be more
serious. Like one of the girls in the band said, the songs dont all have
to be hilarious.
Does Hicks keep in touch with any of the musicians he knew from the
psychedelic days? After all, hes a bit of a last man standing on that
scene with the passing of Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and many others.
Just by chance I might meet someone every now and then from that Summer
of Love thing, he says. I played a gig in East Bay and Peter Albin, who
was the guitar player in Big Brother and the Holding Company, showed up.
But our number is getting fewer.
In terms of what to expect at his upcoming show, Hicks says the band will
feature his iconic female backup singers, who will also be performing on
percussion; along with a violinist/mandolinist and himself on rhythm
Then theres that elephant he mentioned -- if he shows up, presumably, he
will be playing trumpet.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks perform at 8 p.m. Monday, May 16 at the
InsideOut Gallery in Traverse City. Tickets are $25 advance (Oryana, the
InsideOut and treatickets.com) or $30 at the door.