2009-10-01 / Dining & Entertainment

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks

Concert Review
By Cary Ginell Soundthink@aol.com

One of the most welcome returns to the popular music scene is Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, a group whose laid-back, eclectic mix of traditional American musical styles was showcased last week night at The Canyon in Agoura.

Hicks got his start in the creative blue haze of the San Francisco scene in the 1960s along with groups like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. But his sound was a different one. Starting as a folk singer, Hicks developed a cabaret act that combined infectiously rhythmic hot jazz, skiffle, blues and western swing with his own inventive compositions.

The sound Hicks pioneered with his small group more than 40 years ago has not changed “a lick.” He still surrounds himself with a trio of top-notch “acoustic warriors” and a pair of female backup singers known as the Lickettes, who provide vocal harmony and play hand-held percussion instruments. The music this group produces remains what it was in the early ’70s: an effervescent novelty that is still ahead of its time.

For want of a better term, Hicks half-jokingly calls his music “Caucasian hip-hop,” but it’s pointless to try to stick a label on it. When he came on the music scene, there were a few scattered iconoclasts, such as Tom Waits and Leon Redbone, who defied what was heard on the radio and invented their own styles.

Hicks’ knowledge of jazz is deep; vintage songs in his set include Jimmie Noone’s “Blues My Naughty Baby Gives to Me” and Al Jolson’s standard “Avalon.” But his base has broadened to include a Latin-flavored version of bebop pianist Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” with Dave Bell playing Wes Montgomeryinspired octave licks on guitar.

For longtime Hot Licks fans, the group played “Milk Shakin’ Mama,” the sultry “Canned Music,” and a mesmerizing “I Scare Myself,” the last highlighted by two absolutely amazing solos by Bell on guitar and Richard Chon on violin. All three songs were featured on Hicks’ 1969 debut album, “Original Recordings.”

At 67, Hicks has aged well. A little paunchier now, he still sounds like Bruce Dern, singing in a halfstrangled, lazy tenor. He punctuates his vocals with spastic kicks with his left leg, but otherwise remains still, with only his wrist moving as he strums his guitar. Like Redbone, he maintains a deadpan expression throughout, even while muttering witty asides like “If Bruce Springsteen sings another Woody Guthrie song, I’m outta here.”

The trio of musicians backing Hicks is as good as he’s ever had. Chon’s swinging sensibility on violin matches that of Hicks’ most famous fiddler, Sid Page. Bell, whose shaggy mane never stays still, can play in just about any guitar style he wants, and bassist Paul Smith shows an affinity for jazz legend Major Holley by singing along with his improvised bass solos. The current Lickettes, “Daria” and Roberta Donnay, were featured on “Waitress in a Donut Shop,” a Maria Muldaur favorite.

The Hot Licks name lay dormant for three decades before Hicks revived it nine years ago. His new CD, “Tangled Tales” (the title track is simply an exercise in scat singing), also available on nostalgic vinyl, is as delightful as was his set at The Canyon, featuring stellar guest stars like David Grisman and Charlie Musselwhite. Long may he swing. For more about the band, visit www.danhicks.net.

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