Dan Hicks's quirky melange
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 21, 2002) – If not for his occasional digs at the likes of Britney Spears and Rod Stewart and his Tourette’s-like spasms of Bob Dylan imitations, Dan Hicks could easily have played the same show he did before a sold-out crowd at Club Helsinki on Sunday night half a century ago.

With his all-acoustic group, the Hot Licks, Hicks played a quirky melange of pre-rock music, including country, blues, jug-band and early pop, all heavily spiced with swing and jazz. While the music was delivered with impeccable virtuosity by his three-member band and two female vocalists, it was Hicks’s deadpan personality, mixing Randy Newman’s misanthropy with his own ironic take on his performance, that made the show almost as much performance art as it was performance.

It was a fine line, and Hicks achieved a masterful balancing act between subverting his own dapper musicality with his twinkling wit and getting across his tunes with the old-time authenticity of his like-minded obsessive, Leon Redbone. But Hicks has been at it for nearly 40 years, and he is a natural, cabaret-style entertainer and performer who knows how to bring along his audience and his band with equal finesse.

He kicked off his first set with “Canned Music,” a novelty blues and one of his oldest tunes. A rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” gave the musicians, including violinist Brian Godchaux and guitarist Tom Mitchell a chance to introduce themselves, and Hicks a chance to warm up with some genuine scat-singing. “Along Came a Viper” was a double-time jazzy blues featuring Godchaux on mandolin, and “Strike It While It’s Hot” had a Brazilian lilt.

Hicks introduced one of his best-known songs, “I Scare Myself,” as “the theme song of a generation.” He sang the tune in a soft, high register, answered by Godchaux’s Gypsy-inflected violin. Hicks had a lot of fun explaining the concept behind “I’ve Got a Capo on My Brain,” although the lyrics to that song summed it up best -- “It’s got me all keyed up to a real high pitch” – which could stand as much as anything for a Dan Hicks mission statement.

Vocalists Robin Syler and Chris DeWolf were apt foils for Hicks’s understated delivery, answering his lines with Andrews Sisters-style call-and-response and occasional harmonies. They also contributed a variety of hand percussion to the drummerless ensemble. Hicks himself, a former drummer, kept the rhythms swinging with carefully-placed rhythm guitar, allowing Mitchell the freedom to comment and punctuate with single-note leads while acoustic bassist Paul Smith kept the songs tethered in tempo.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 23, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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