Can’t Be Pegged
Dan Hicks is the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sharing a sarsaparilla with on a hot, lazy afternoon.
An endearing if offbeat fellow, the easygoing singer-songwriter from the Bay Area is known for his versatile musicianship, sardonic vocals and peculiar lyrical bent. He has also penned some of the most unusual song titles, including “Hell, I’d Go!,” “13-D,” “Presently in the Past,” “I Scare Myself” (an ‘80s hit song for techno-rocker Thomas Dolby) and “How Can I Miss You (When You Won’t Go Away)?”
He’s as prone to flights of fancy onstage. Hicks’ between-song banter is often rambling and ripe with wry, off-the-cuff humor, typified by this introduction to a live version of “Barstool Boogie”: “This one’s about bar patrons who dance in their pants ‘cause there’s no dance floor.”
The Arkansas-born Hicks grew up listening to country music and, as a teenager living in Santa Rosa, fell in love with the sounds of Benny Goodman and other swing-era jazz greats. Eventually his tastes broadened to include folk, bluegrass, jug band and the blues.
After playing drums in the ‘60s-era rock band the Charlatans, Hicks formed his own acoustic swing-pop band, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, which released three records between 1969 and 1974. In recent times, Hicks has been backed by the Acoustic Warriors, with lead guitarist Bill DeKuiper, string bassist Alex Baum and violinist Jim Hurley. The foursome plays pop-laced western swing, folk and jazz tonight at McCabe’s in Santa Monica and Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.
Although he’s known more as a pop or rock act, Hicks says he has the greatest affinity for jazz.
“Ever since I was playing drums for dance bands back in junior college, I’ve always enjoyed the form, melodies and lyrics of the jazz standards,” Hicks said by phone from his home in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco. “I’ll play a few in my shows, where I’ll put down my guitar and just sing the song. I work hard to put my own stamp on them, like scatting some on ‘How High the Moon,’ or rearranging parts of ‘Give Me the Simple Life.’ ”
While the electrified sounds of rap, rock, ska, alternative and punk rumble through today’s pop music landscape, Hicks gamely saunters on, crafting unhip music that refuses to lose its appeal.
“I don’t think my music is especially commercial; it’s not even attempting to be,” he suggests. “We’re just a little ol’ four-piece [band]. We’re certainly not your loud, corporate type of band that you’ll find in arenas or on MTV.”
Sure, Hicks is commercially low-profile. But that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of his audience.
“I choose tunes that I think the folks will like . . . ones that I can reach them with,” he said. “Performance is all about communication. I don’t want to look out there and see ‘em yawning. I try to read the crowd too. I might be a little sarcastic or dry with my chatter, but if I can’t get away with a lot that particular night, then I’ll cool it and concentrate more on the music.
“I like being up there onstage, singing and entertaining. I try to improvise and keep things fresh for both the audience and ourselves. The spontaneity brings an edge to our show, and I take pride in not repeating myself.”
Despite keeping busy playing local live dates and contributing jingles to commercials--including the well-known Levi’s 501 blues campaign--Hicks endured one long recording dry spell, from 1978 through 1993.
In ’94 he cut a live LP of new material, “Shootin’ Straight” (Private / On the Spot), which includes songs about welcoming an alien abduction, a tweaked bank robbery and gin-soaked tales of loneliness, among other twisted topics. His odd rhythms and imaginative wordplay highlight several tracks, with the following lyric from “Up! Up! Up!” reaching new heights: “My mother died from asbestos / My father’s name was Estes / And I don’t know if that messed / Us, up or what it did.”
Drawing from his Hot Licks-era LPs, his latest release is “Return to Hicksville” (MCA-affiliated Hip-O Records), a 16-song, best-of compilation. Hicks says he has at least an album’s worth of material ready to go and has been negotiating with Encinitas-based Surf Dog Records with hopes of landing a record deal.
In the meantime, Hicks says, he maintains a positive outlook and keeps working hard--sort of.
“I haven’t been avidly writing, but new ideas crawl to the surface on occasion,” Hicks said. “Usually I know if I’ve come up with something decent . . . when the beat and melody grabs me . . . and it sounds fresh, and the band seems to like it. . . . The real test is thinking up enough good words to want to sing them over and over again.”
Will commercial success find its way to Hicksville?
“Sure, I would have liked to have had more success along the way, but one can always hope,” Hicks says. “It’s that ‘dangling carrot’ kind of thing. It’s unknown what’s around the corner. Maybe my luck will change for the better, like an artist will have a big hit with one of my songs. Or something good might come from the inside, like I’ll simply write the song I was born to write.
“In any event, this is what I do for a living. I’m listed under the Pop section at Tower [Records], but I’ve always wanted to be a jazz artist. I’m still working on that one. I’m 56 years old now, and I know I’m not gonna retire any time soon.”
* Dan Hicks and the Acoustic Warriors play tonight at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. $20. (310) 828-4403. Also appearing Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. $3-$6 (714) 248-7469.