By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
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By Christopher Victorio
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"How can I miss you when you won't go away?" asks the catchy chorus to one of acoustic prankster Dan Hicks' most sardonic love songs, recorded way back in the early '70s. For folks here in the Bay Area it was never that big of an issue, since Hicks -- a Marin local who'd been big in the early San Francisco rock scene -- never really went anywhere. Those in the know could catch him playing at small clubs in Marin or maybe one of his infrequent Christmas gigs.
Thursday, Dec. 21, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50; call 885-0750.
Sample of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks' "Hell, I'd Go!," from the CD Beatin' the Heat. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.
For the rest of the country, though, Hicks' whereabouts have been a matter of speculation for the better part of two decades -- a mystery that is now solved, thanks to the release of Beatin' the Heat, the first Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks studio album in over 20 years. It's not only one of Hicks' best efforts, it's also one of the best records to hit the acoustic Americana scene in recent years.
The album features the patented Hot Licks sound -- a slick mix of acoustic jazz, rock, and old-timey hillbilly riffs, topped off with a hefty dose of Tin Pan Alley pop savvy. The disc is full of high-powered guest stars such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Brian Setzer, Bette Midler, and Rickie Lee Jones, all of whom jumped at the chance to record with the man who pioneered the confluence of jazz and pop.
Hicks started off his musical career as a humble band geek, drumming in his Santa Rosa high school's flag corps. From there he made the leap into an early '60s folk and jug band scene that also included baby-faced bluegrassers Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Once the Beatles stormed America's shores, many earnest San Francisco folkies transferred their musical allegiance to rock 'n' roll; Hicks dutifully picked up his sticks and started beating the tom-toms in the Charlatans, one of the first and gnarliest bands in the now-legendary S.F. psychedelic scene. Unlike contemporaries such as Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead, the Charlatans never had much commercial success; they released only one single on Kapp Records, an ailing and terminally un-hip label, then imploded, as bands often do. In terms of style, though, the group made an indelible impression on many of its peers.
"We were this heavy rock band," Hicks recalls, "that dressed in this whole turn-of-the-century, Edwardian cowboy style, and we were playing all this old-timey stuff." The band's first major gig was at a Virginia City, Nev., saloon that had an Old West theme. "I was the only guy in the band who didn't wear a starched collar. We didn't consciously set out to be retro, but that's how it came out."
Bay Area music historian Alec Palao, who recently compiled a collection of the best Charlatans material, recalls that the band's attitude was also very distinct from its flower-power contemporaries: "The Charlatans were very much a breed apart from what typified San Francisco in the '60s. They weren't into peace and love at all -- actually, they were quite an ornery bunch of fellows, just about the most right-wing bunch of hippies imaginable." The Charlatans' rough-and-ready Butch Cassidy garb suited itself well to Hicks' unsentimental, smart-ass lyrics -- songs like "How Can I Miss You" and "We're Not on the Same Trip" might have seemed mean-spirited if they weren't so darn clever.
But as everyone around him turned on, plugged in, and cranked up the reverb, Hicks -- in a typically perverse move -- went retro acoustic. His new band, the Hot Licks, featured a tight rhythm section, a jazzy violinist, and Andrews Sisters-styled vocal arrangements (which eventually inspired other nostalgia-oriented jazz acts such as Midler and the Manhattan Transfer). The act went national in the early '70s, touring often and making TV appearances on The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show. Hicks even graced the cover of Rolling Stone -- twice. Then, at the height of his fame, he decided to call it quits.
"At some point," Hicks recalls, "I just got tired of being a band leader. I hadn't planned on doing it forever, and it's hard to judge how successful you're being. It wasn't like we were all figuring out what condos to buy, or how to invest our money. I kept on doing gigs, though -- I just cut it down to two people and tried out different combinations."
After disbanding the Hot Licks, Hicks pursued a low-key career, doing a little acting, some on-and-off touring with the scaled-down Acoustic Warriors, and a lot of studio tinkering at home. Record deals came up from time to time, but Hicks was often dissatisfied with his recorded efforts, and some of his best work was left on the shelf.
"Sometimes I'll make something at home on my little cassette machine or eight-track, I'll make a little demo and I'll say, "Yeah, this is the sound; this is what I want.' And then by the time the record's made, you don't hear a lot of what I thought of originally. Somehow, other things replaced my original ideas. I can do stuff in my living room, just by myself, that you can't seem to get in the studio."
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