Can’t wait for a new Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks album? Onstage on Sunday, he brings a reconstituted Hot Licks to WAMC to play songs from “Tangled Tales,” an album so new he only just got started recording it.
When he completes and releases “Tangled Tales” this fall, it will follow four years after “Selected Shorts,” which followed four years after “Beatin’ the Heat,” which followed the breakup of the original Hot Licks at their 1974 peak by 26 years.
Hicks has always taken the long view and made it work by sheer wit and time-defying hipness. During San Francisco’s mid-1960s rock revival, his band the Charlatans dressed like psychedelic cowboys. In rock-star terms, Hicks is the original different drummer: He played drums in the Charlatans, but he became even more different when he left to write songs and built his original Hot Licks according to a blueprint straight out of the 1940s, or earlier. He designed the Hot Licks as a jazzy, drummer-less string-band with call-and-response female vocals like Ray Charles late-1950s Raelettes.
The new Hot Licks operate the same way, onstage and in the studio. “I used to think maybe the band was more for touring and not so much for recording,” he said Monday from his northern California home. But now he leads the same players onstage and in the studio: singers Roberta Donnay and Daria (no last name), bassist Paul Smith, guitarist Dave Bell and violinist Richard John.
“Beatin’ the Heat” and “Selected Shorts” featured some of Hicks’ hip friends: Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett and Gibby Haynes. Some of Hicks’ northern California neighbors have already chimed in on “Tangled Tales,” including mandolinist David Grisman, guitarists Roy Rodgers and Bruce Forman and blues harmonica cat Charlie Musselwhite.
Hicks amiably tipped his hand a bit, talking briefly about the songs for the album. Some are new, some he started writing decades ago: the long view in action. “ ‘The Diplomat’ is about getting along in the world today,” he said.
Another new song is called “13D.” No, that’s not the number of an apartment where a swing-time film-noir fantasy plays out in black-and-white with gunplay, gin and violins. “That’s about a shoe size,” said Hicks. “The idea is, you wouldn’t want to be in my shoes, but I wear a 13D.”
Melody and humor
“I like all the material, I think,” he said, proudly at first and then cautiously equivocating a bit. And no wonder: These songs have big shoes to fill. Despite their unlikely, antique sound, Hicks’ songs have hit the funny bone and the pleasure center that welcomes melody with just about equal accuracy.
“How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away” was an instant classic in 1969, both funnier and more poignant than its title.
Another 1969-vintage number, “I Scare Myself,” sparkles on Hicks’ debut album “Original Recordings,” then in a duet treatment with Rickie Lee Jones on “Beatin’ The Heat,” and even in Thomas Dolby’s arch 1984 cover.
Also on “Beatin’,” Hicks excused any musical mishaps that may occur by arguing that “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me),” but of course there’s no piano on the song at all.
He still plays many older songs onstage. “I still do them because I still like them,” he said. “They’re still good show tunes.”
However, he really doesn’t like to take requests, unless what he calls a quorum develops in the audience around a particular song. “I usually like to make up my own mind onstage, and I don’t want to HAVE to do something.”
He added: “I have to tread lightly because the people came out and they support my music. So I don’t want to just say, ‘[expletive] you.’ ” he explained. Then he mused: “So maybe you do the [requested] song, and THEN you say, ‘[expletive] you.’ ” Turning serious, he said, “I feel like saying sometimes; if [jazz pianist] George Shearing was playing, you wouldn’t be shouting out like that; so I want that same treatment.”
Hicks’ vintage voice seems as durable as his older tunes. “People say I’ve actually gotten better,” he said, sounding slightly surprised. “Now I can sing more stuff than ever,” he added. “I graduated from being a folksinger to jazz and I can do more with my voice now. It got lower, a little bit, and that’s OK.”
He said sympathetically that he can sometimes hear when older singers “don’t have quite what they used to have.” But he wryly added: “I didn’t have anything to start with — so I’m kind of pleased with this turn of events. I’m 66 now, and I feel pretty confident in my voice.”
He has good reason to be confident in his new Hot Licks, too. A perhaps unexpected choice, they were nonetheless reportedly a smash playing “I’m Not There: In Concert,” the high profile Bob Dylan tribute show celebrating Todd Haynes’ film last November at the Beacon Theater in New York City.
“I was really taken by music veterans like Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks as they did a superb version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ complete with coordinating dance moves that got the audience charged up,” reported Jin Moon in Filter magazine.
Sounds about right: “music business veterans,” “superb version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ ” and “coordinating dance moves that got the audience charged up.”
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks charge up the audience at 8 p.m. on Sunday at the Linda Norris Auditorium of the WAMC Performing Arts Studio (339 Central Ave., Albany). Admission is $25. Phone 465-5233 ext. 3 or visit www.wamcarts.org.