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Dan Hicks

Robert Downes - May 9th, 2011
For Dan Hicks the Licks Still Click
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 band’s elephant. “We travel with a live elephant and I’ll
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.

ACOUSTIC U-TURN
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
disrespected.
It’s an affliction from which he’s 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.

BIG INFLUENCE
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 isn’t resting on his laurels. These days he has a number of
projects in the works, or is at least thinking about getting started.
“I’m 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. “I’m also working on
some songs for a new album, but first I’ve got to get through some gigs
with the band throughout the Midwest.
“I’ve 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 -- it’s a narrative that goes into the history of the
blues, swing and folk rock.”
Then there’s 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 what’s been started.”

SONGWRITING CHALLENGES
What about new songs? Is it hard to write new stuff when there’s such
high audience demand for songs written 40 years ago, such as “I Scare
Myself”?
“I’m not in the shadow of them,” Hicks says of his oldies. “But it’s hard
to come up with new stuff. I’m not as active as when I used to write
songs every day all fresh and new. My enthusiasm isn’t what it used to
be. When you’re writing a song, you want to be fresh and different and
new. The words I’m good at, but with melodies you might feel that you’ve
done that a million times already, and that can be an obstacle to getting
things done.”
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 I’ve got
one love song in the works and I’m going to keep it going and be more
serious. Like one of the girls in the band said, the songs don’t all have
to be hilarious.”

LOOKING BACK
Does Hicks keep in touch with any of the musicians he knew from the
psychedelic days? After all, he’s 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
guitar.
Then there’s 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.
 
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