The Drama You've Been Craving

Hicks' specialty is what was called "good time music" in the '60s.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks' new album, Beatin' The Heat.
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Monday, Sept. 25, 2000

Return of the Wayward Charlatan

A star in the '70s, Dan Hicks is back with a great new album featuring the same old sound. Thank god!

By Michael Goldberg

In America, we periodically go for old musical styles — as long as they're presented to us by young, good-looking performers with a fairly hip style.

A decade or so ago, the Stray Cats were able to sell watered-down rockabilly to a teen audience that had never heard Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes," "Matchbox"), let alone Billy Lee Riley ("Flying Saucers Rock 'N' Roll").

More recently we've seen ska, swing and even late-'70s punk revived. Occasionally, the new artists playing the old sounds get it right — Hepcat or the Squirrel Nut Zippers or Rancid. Even more occasionally, younger performers use their success to introduce important but forgotten originators of the sound they're reviving.

All of which is a bit of a roundabout way to introduce you to the original old-time music revivalist, Dan Hicks.

When he first appeared on the scene in the '60s, Hicks was a young guy playing old sounds. But there was something fresh, even original about his approach then, and he hasn't lost his special touch. His voice and his sly, humorous point of view set him apart from any crowd. Now that he's an old-timer, his music seems even more solid and substantial.

Dan Hicks has the coolest friends. On his wonderful new album, Beatin' the Heat (Surfdog) his first in years — Hicks gets some help from Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Tom Waits, and onetime Stray Cat and recent swing revivalist Brian Setzer.

But Hicks — who for many years seemed to be hangin' around Mill Valley not doing a whole lot of anything — knows this may be his chance for a real comeback. He doesn't waste his shot, getting great work from his guests without letting them dominate. His voice — which suggests a straw boater hat, handlebar mustache, bow tie, seersucker suit and spats — is front and center, even when he's dueting with Costello or Jones. "Meet Me on the Corner," a highlight here, finds Setzer delivering a burning rockabilly guitar solo and Costello offering a frantic vocal, all the better to show off Hicks' singing and writing.

Going head to head with Waits on "I'll Tell You Why That Is," a song way over in Waits' territory, Hicks still stands out. (Waits' vocal turn is a knockout too —not to be missed.)

I even think some of the songs that feature no one but Hicks and his current version of the Hot Licks (Sid Page on violin, Kevin Smith on upright bass, Gregg Bissonette on drums, and Jessica Harper and Karla De Vito on background vocals), such as "Hummin' To Myself" and "He Don't Care," may be the strongest here.

Hicks' specialty is what was called "good time music" in the '60s. Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian could be considered his predecessor, though Hicks never made music as pop as what Sebastian did with the Spoonful ("Do You Believe in Magic?"). The content of his songs seems inconsequential — some guy who's stoned all the time, his own incompetence ("I'm a drummer and I can't keep the beat"), being distracted by "all them girls runnin' around") — but of course there is wisdom there, if you look for it.

Hicks' arrangements make use of banjo, fiddle and Django Reinhardt-like jazz guitar at times. He uses doo-wop style harmony singers to play against affable lead vocals laced with dry, dry humor.

The challenge for artists working with vintage sounds is to both capture the energy and sense of the new that was there the first time around, and to make the music (and the songs) their own. Success on both counts results in something new, music that enriches the culture; failure delivers music instantly ready for the scrap heap.

I hope Hicks' famous friends help bring this American treasure to the attention of a new generation of music fans who weren't even born when Hicks first made his mark in the mid-to-late '60s as the drummer and one of the songwriters in the legendary San Francisco rock combo the Charlatans. His first real success came in the early '70s as leader of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, with such underground FM radio staples as "I Scare Myself" (which is remade here as a duet with Rickie Lee Jones).

More myth than band, the Charlatans only released one album before breaking up, and that didn't do justice to their music, or their legend. (The Amazing Charlatans, a collection of their '60s recordings, mostly unreleased, was issued in 1996 on Big Beat Records; Hicks' earliest recordings are also available on the 1998 Big Beat album, Early Muses.)

Formed shortly after the mid-'60s British Invasion brought the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and others to America, the Charlatans dressed like Wild West dudes, and looked to classic American music for inspiration. Long before the Byrds created country-rock, the group took folk and blues material ("Devil Got My Man," "Alabama Bound," "Codeine Blues") and made it rock 'n' roll.) Hicks brought his humor to such early compositions as "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away" and "By Hook or By Crook."

Amazingly, Hicks still sounds vibrant, alive— new — more than 35 years after he first began offering contemporary music fans his retro sound. His music makes me smile. How bad can that be?

In The Game

The Transfused (Yoyo): The rock opera The Transfused is breathtakingly ambitious, but the work itself is even more impressive, managing to succeed as both art and an attack on corporate America. The music is powerful, at-times-abstract rock. Written and performed by Nomy Lamm and the modernist post-riot grrrl duo The Need (with a large supporting cast of vocalists that includes members of Team Dresch), The Transfused is set more than 100 years in the future and tells the story of rebellion against The Corporation (a theme dear to my own heart, which ran through my own fictional work, 1999's ""). In The Transfused even the very air the populace breathes comes at tremendous cost, as they slave away to produce what the liner notes describe as "useless and absurd commodities."

Michael Goldberg is the Editor in Chief of ARTISTdirect.

(c) 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.