SINCE HE AMBLED ONTO THE music scene in San Francisco’s freewheeling ‘60s, Dan Hicks has been a compelling anachronism. His original songs and musical stylings showed influences from so many different genres that he could only be labeled, if a label was all that important, as an original. Which makes it hard to drop his records (and, now, CDs) into that all-important correctly defined bin.
It may be that Hicks as a performer has undermined the reputation he should enjoy as a songwriter. He’s way too funny onstage. He has a dry sense of humor and manner that wonderfully parodies the luv-ya-all insincerity of many a performer, yet he wields his wit without alienating the crowd – they love him for it.
But there’s something about a funnyman that discourages serious examination. Songs like “I Scare Myself” are classics – and it was covered by Thomas Dolby – and the Club Helsinki performance reminded us that it’s both the well-crafted lyric and hypnotic tune that make this such a great vehicle. “It’s theme song of a generation,” said Hicks, introducing the song. “A generation of wiped-out paranoids.”
Hicks kept up a backbone of rhythm guitar and did some picking throughout, but solo honors fell to Tom Mitchell, who set up the Spanish flavor with a single-line solo that gave way to violinist Brian Godchaux’s chilling ruminations on the subject. His long notes doubled and quadrupled until his fiddle was spouting a shivery run of tremolos that very effectively built in excitement. Then bassist Paul Smith changed the mood again with an boppish solo.
“Bottoms Up!” is a superb Hicks original that ought to be in the cabaret-show repertoire – it’s a woman’s lament over a fraying love that has sent her into a bar for a drink. “I don’t mind sittin’ alone/If a move’s to be made, I’ll make it on my own.”
Other Hicks ought-to-be standards also showcased the players, and Hicks’ vocals included harmony from the percussion-wielding Lickettes: in this case, Chris DeWolf and Robin Seiler. They opened with “Canned Music,” a tribute to the pleasure and peril of a live performance, then dipped into the jazz standards with Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” Here’s where Hicks revealed what may be most compelling about him as a performer: he’s unremittingly hip. His scat vocal was every bit as inspired as anything from Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Tormé, but, again, it’s in a category of its own.
“'Long Come a Viper” features a tongue-twisting chorus, sung in close harmony, while songs like “How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?,” “Evenin' Breeze” and “I Feel Like Singing” were obviously well known to the crowd of fans.
Flat-out jazz emerged in the medley of “Caravan” and Django Reinhardt’s “Swing ’42,” while Hicks’ own “Reelin’ Down” sported a twangy country flavor.
Although there was little new for dyed-in-the-wool Hicks fans, he has the jazz virtuoso’s ability to make the old songs sound fresh. And the show itself couldn’t have been more entertaining.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., Oct. 20
– Metroland Magazine, 24 October 2002