Dan Hicks unleashes a mighty swing with latest album
by Greg Cahill
March 26, 2009
Dan Hicks sports one of the most original sounds in pop music, an
acoustic-based hipster groove coupled with irreverent lyrics that are
delivered with a droll wit. That blend of folk, old-timey jazz, swing
and blues defies easy definition. It's been called sardonic swing and
toe-tapping mountain-hippie swing. Hicks himself has even been
likened to Hoagie Carmichael with a roach clip.
How does this Mill Valley musician describe his sound?
"I call it folk swing," he says dryly and with a bemused twang. "It's
a hybrid of my two favorite kinds of music: folk and jazz. You could
just say that I'm the King of Folk Swing--I'm the father, actually,
of folk swing. I invented the genre and I know exactly what day and what time.
"You got a problem with that?" he chuckles.
In fact, Hicks' first studio album in nine years is cued up on the CD
player--and it's a hit. His newly released Tall Tales (Surfdog) finds
the retro raconteur spinning a dozen yarns--eight originals and four
cover tunes--with his red-hot band the Hot Licks. The CD is a return
to form that finds the singer backed by fiddles, upright bass and
female backup singers who split their time between sweet harmonies
and call-and-response quips. It's reminiscent of the classic '70s
band that featured Maryanne Price on vocals and Naomi Ruth Eisenberg
on fiddle and vocals.
It's easy on the ears.
"I like that sound: It's not loud, it's smooth and it's tasty," Hicks
says. "When I signed with Surfdog nine years ago, I started thinking
about returning to that sound. I never got too far away from it, with
the Acoustic Warriors, but we're definitely back with that sound. I
like the whole package."
Guest musicians include mandolinist David Grisman, slide guitarist
Roy Rogers and blues harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite.
Local fans of Hicks' short-lived Bayside Jazz act at the old
Sweetwater, which found the singer playing traditional jazz tunes on
Sunday afternoons, will recognize his cover of the jazz standard
"Song for My Father," replete with guitarist Bruce Forman and
seldom-recorded lyrics by Dianne Davidson.
It fits right in with Hicks' signature folk swing.
This Santa Rosa native honed his chops in the 1960s as the drummer of
the Charlatans after shuffling onto the national stage in 1969 with
Original Recordings, a departure from the psychedelicized San
Francisco music scene. That Hot Licks debut introduced the campy
outfit that dished up wry country-inflected tunes about diner
waitresses, blue-collar workers and barflies.
It was a brilliant blend of humor, beat sensibility and pseudo-nostalgia.
Several classic albums, three decades and a long dry spell later,
Hicks reemerged in 2000 with the critically acclaimed comeback
Beatin' the Heat, his first studio recording since 1976. It featured
Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Brian Setzer, Bette Midler and Rickie Lee Jones.
Tall Tales is less heavily produced than his recent albums--it's 100
percent pure unadulterated folk swing.
"I'm happy with this album," Hicks says, adding that the CD was
recorded at the Plant studio in Sausalito. "There are no gimmicks, so
it kind of goes back to the way I recorded [in the 1970s at the Blue
Thumb label with [producer Tommy LiPuma when we'd just sing and play
and record it all in one take with very little overdubbing.
"It demonstrates the way we are on stage these days."
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, with David Grisman, perform at Yoshi's
in San Francisco Saturday, March 28, at 8 and 10pm. $35. 415/655-5600.