A most joyous noise echoed within the walls of the Community Media Center’s Wealthy Theatre Thursday evening. Singer-songwriter-wry lyricist Dan Hicks was in town presented by radio station WYCE with the latest incarnation of his Hot Licks. Perhaps a couple of seats were available here and there, but for the most part the auditorium was packed in anticipation of Mr. Hicks’ quirky vocals, superior musicianship, and good-ol’-timey sound that has punctuated his 45+ years in the music business.
No signs of being worse for the wear from Hicks. His charmingly nasal tenor voice melds as seamlessly with backup vocalists, the Lickettes, as it did in the early 70’s. His onstage banter and off-handed remarks complemented the sometimes comedic and humorous nature of his songs.
After some minor sound adjustments the band swung right into action opening the first set with A Sammy Cahn jump tune, “Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy.” The Lickettes: Roberta Donnay, and Daria, demonstrated from their first notes the wonderful harmonies and flawless vocal arrangements the audience was in store for. In addition to their vocalese, the girls would prove to be impressive percussionists as they pulled gadget after gizmo out of their trick bag throughout the night.
In the only instrumental selection of the evening, the Lickmen, so dubbed by Hicks, had a chance to stretch out and deliver a bit of their own magic. Virtuoso musicians all, this trio was reminiscent of many that Hicks has surrounded himself with during his career. David Bell took the first turn with a Djangoesque interpretation on his amplified acoustic guitar. Bell would wow the audience on several occasions, bending strings, playing a mean slide and in general, with his mastery of his instrument. Benito Cortez, in what he would intimate later was only his second live gig with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks played Grappelli on his fiddle to Bell’s Django on guitar without missing a beat. Paul Smith took the third solo and provided the bottom end all night long. He plucked, strummed, bowed and slapped his amplified upright bass keeping everything tight. And, one can certainly not forget about Hicks. He pantomimed later in the evening, imagining himself the soloist. Replete with distorted facial expressions, Hicks played just one or two notes in succession, his self deprecating humor evident while Bell absolutely tore it up in the background, Hicks taking the credit. But, make no mistake about humble Hicks, his stellar rhythm guitar, his vocal and musical arrangements and his lyrics are what create this Gypsy, folk, country jazz musical stew and make it so engaging.
In a tribute to Tom Waits, the Hot Licks covered “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” with Hicks taking one of his many vocal solos. For my money the 2000, Surfdog Records release containing this cover entitled “Beatin’ the Heat” is one of Hicks’ best efforts ever. The purists however, (of which I consider myself one) will never forget the series of albums that came out in the early 70’s. Hicks indulged our nostalgic sweet tooth with “I Scare Myself” and “Canned Music” from his 1971 MCA release “Striking it Rich,” Daria contributing some nice work on the Mellodica. “The Buzzard Was Their Friend” from 71’s “Where’s the Money,” got a wonderful jump blues treatment, “I Feel Like Singing,” a scatting duel between the girls. And finally “Sweetheart,” from the ‘73 effort “Last Train to Hicksville,” featured the wonderfully campy lyrics for which Hicks is known and tailor-made vocals from the Lickettes.
The two most amusing selections came after intermission late in the show. The Hot Licks cover of “Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s hit, “Smoke That Cigarette” drew a rousing applause. The inclusion of quintessential jazz pianist Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father” was a beautiful departure from standard Hot Licks fare and featured a round of solos from the rhythm section and a vocal chorus in Spanish from the girls.
Four hundred happy souls bumped along into the rainy night riding on the wave of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks’ infectious melodies.
I would be remiss to mention local favorite Ralston Bowles who opened the show and delivered a fine and passionate set, but for this fan, the night belonged to Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.