August 07, 2013

Dan Hicks: The Last Train . . . To Amagansett

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One flummoxed reviewer, attempting to categorize the music of Dan Hicks, described it as a combination of country, swing, jazz and the blues, thus covering all the major food groups – except rock, that is.

But for better or for worse, the music of Dan Hicks and The Hot Rocks ultimately belongs in that category simply because there is no other place to put it – it defies classification.

"My parents were Country Western fans," Hicks said in a recent interview. "I started to like jazz, swing, Dixieland stuff. I was a Glen Miller fan in junior high school, but I was aware of Elvis and Bill Haley and those guys. But I listened to mostly jazzy stuff."

Hicks was born in Arkansas but raised in Northern California. Despite his love of the other genres, Hicks began his professional career with The Charlatans, a San Francisco rock band with a strong cult following. Hicks, oddly enough, played drums – odd because his next band usually performed without a drummer.

That was 1969, the beginning of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and four seminal albums that redefined what rock music was and what it could be – "pro-psychedelia to western swing and jazz, Tin Pan Alley to country blues," was one definition. And oh yeah, a smidgen of hilarity built into the lyrics.

"Humor comes to me easily," Hicks said. "It's something I want to do. I like to keep the performances light, but every once in a while I'll write a serious song."

The four-album run with his original band ended with the appropriately titled Last Train To Hicksville, a certifiable masterpiece that left the maestro with a number of enticing career opportunities.

Instead, after playing all over the world and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone three times, he abruptly disbanded the band.

When informed he was probably sitting on a major payday, Hicks said, "I don't know . . . I guess I'm aware of that. There are certain sounds that represent a certain time . . . I designed it, and it sort of evolved. I don't think I walked away, I was in the ballpark. I could have plugged in, but I had more of a folk awareness."

Hicks started playing the guitar and eventually formed a band called "The Acoustic Warriors" but the format of his "classic band" -- a fiddler and two female vocalists always at the core -- was one he'd continue to return to.

"I like singing with people, and I like writing other parts. It inspires me."

In 2000 he recorded Beatin' the Heat on Surfdog Records with the help of a few of his friends -- Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Tom Waits and Stray Cats guitarist Brian Setzer. A decade later, typical of Hicks' eclectic style, he recorded the Hot Licks Christmas Album.

This year, the folks at Surfdog came up with the idea of recording his 70th birthday party, the recently released Live At Davies, a raucous, star-studded, improvised affair that is awkward, sloppy – and absolutely wonderful.

"It was kind of loose," Hicks remembered. "It was do or die in front of 3000 people. It was an event. Backstage it was like an old folk scene. The recording was secondary to the event."

Hicks brings the latest edition of the Hot Licks to the Stephen Talkhouse on Sunday, August 11 at 7 PM. Tickets can be had a 631-267-3117 or online but grab them fast.

"I like that little place," Hicks said of The Talkhouse. "It's a good little trip out there."

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