Dan Hicks Keeps Ticking : The Wry Leader of the ‘60s-Era Hot Licks Faced Some Cold Shoulders; Now With a New Album, He’s Coming Out of His Shell


When he gets going on the dryly humorous, staccato strands of verbiage that crop up occasionally in his songs, Dan Hicks is one of the fastest mouths in the West.

But in demeanor, the veteran folk-pop-jazz singer and bandleader from the Bay Area is as laid-back as the drawling, wizened old prospector he sounded like in a recent phone interview.

Brisk tempos and jumping, swinging rhythms won’t be lacking when Hicks and his three-man backing band, the Acoustic Warriors, play at the Coach House on Sunday. But Hicks himself doesn’t come off as a fellow given to sudden moves.


“You scared me,” is the first thing he said earlier this week upon answering a reporter’s ring at a previously appointed time.

“The phone was right here, and it rang,” Hicks slowly elaborated. “I was expecting it to. But still it kind of shocked me. I’m OK now.”

Hicks, who first won national notice in the early ‘70s as leader of Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, must have gotten used to a lack of sudden occurrences, at least in his musical life, as he went from 1978 until 1994 without releasing an album. That kind of semi-eternity in limbo is perhaps the scariest thing that can happen to a recording artist.

The drought ended last summer with the release of “Shootin’ Straight,” a live album recorded at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. It’s the sort of record that can’t be easily summed up.

Part of it is zany--in songs like “Up! Up! Up!,” about a family prone to sudden, fatal mishaps, or “Hell, I’d Go!” in which Hicks and his band get so eager about the prospect of being hijacked by alien spacemen that they spend much of the song buzzing in a sort of intergalactic Esperanto.

Some of it is poignant--as in Hicks’ lovelorn, old-time waltz “A Magician.” Some of it is a tad scary--as Hicks mulls violent retribution against a cheating lover in the airy but dark-hued “Level With Me Laurie.”

The musical styles are also varied and far off the track of today’s more commercial folk-pop acts. The zesty interplay of guitars, fiddles and mandolins looks back to Django Reinhardt; “Up! Up! Up!” takes an insouciant cue from Louis Jordan, and accordion-driven “The Rounder” is a zydeco-flavored R & B workout.

“I’ve had most of those songs for quite a while,” Hicks said. “I was real glad to finally get some songs recorded. It’s part of the process, the end step.”

“The process” remained incomplete for Hicks, now 53, after he lost his solo deal with Warner Bros. in 1980. “My pursuit of a (new) label would vacillate,” Hicks said. “I’d be real hot for it, then I’d give up for a while. My interest was there, and then it wasn’t.

“The bigger companies didn’t know what to do with me, and the smaller companies didn’t have enough money. I laid low around Mill Valley (the Marin County town where he lives), did some commercials (including jingles for Levi’s jeans and Ballpark Franks) and some gigs around here,” he said. “I traveled some, but not much.”


Hicks finally got a chance at record-making with On the Spot, a new subsidiary of the Private Music label that is devoted exclusively to live recordings. Hicks said his deal with Private Music also calls for a second release that he plans as a studio album.

“Shootin’ Straight” has won strong reviews, although Hicks hasn’t yet capitalized with extensive touring, television slots or other methods available to hard-to-categorize artists on small labels.

“It brought back some self-esteem, I think, just to be back doing it,” he said. “Although it’s not shooting up the charts, it is serving a function. I’m just making my statement for now. I don’t want to say it’s a stepping stone, but maybe it is.”

Growing up in Santa Rosa, Hicks took to big-band swing and became a drummer in dance bands. In the early 1960s, as the folk boom hit, he took up the guitar and became a solo folkie hanging out on the scene at San Francisco State. In 1965, he took over the drum chair in the Charlatans, one of the first bands on the soon-to-boom San Francisco rock scene.

Hicks started his Hot Licks in 1968 and won a national following with four albums that offered a heady, usually lighthearted blend of Bob Wills-inspired Western swing, jug-band music and jumping jazz. In those days, Hicks developed a reputation for sometimes combative repartee with his audiences.

“I played a lot of bars, and people would yell stuff at me,” he said. “They’d get a little unruly, and that’s how it all got started. I would just try to get them first. I definitely toned that all down.

“For the last 10 years at least, that’s not my approach at all. I’m more, ‘Let’s do a nice concert here--let’s raise the door price so the jar-heads can’t get in.’ ”

Hicks said the humor in songs he wrote more than 25 years ago still seems to translate with new fans: “I wonder sometimes if a song could be dated. I’ll deliver a line that I came up with in 1969, and I’ll get a response. And I’ll be kind of surprised myself.

“I’d have to say (the audience’s sense of humor) hasn’t changed, fortunately for me,” he said. “That means my stuff is, I don’t want to say current, but at least workable.”

* Dan Hicks & the Acoustic Warriors and Heads of State play Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $10. (714) 496-8930.

Hear Dan Hicks and the Acoustic Warriors:* To hear a sample of the album “Shootin’ Straight,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press * 5580.

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