In a welcome return to the rock ‘n’ roll stage, Dan Hicks, the father of folk-swing, is again appearing with the Hot Licks and reviving the repertoire and ambiance that built his reputation in the early 1970s. A new record, “Beatin’ the Heat” on the indie Surfdog label, finds this former San Francisco bar fixture still at the top of his game, and the live presentation only enhances his material and reputation as a man of blithesome wit.
It doesn’t matter that this edition of the Hot Licks bears no link to the original lineup of 1970; the music is driven by jazz guitar and violin with two chanteuses on the side to give the proceedings pep and an air of bordello suggestiveness. Hicks hasn’t been heard from in so long — a live album with his Acoustic Warriors in the mid-’90s registered barely a blip — that a packed house greeted his return with fevered anticipation and abundant laughs.
The new band is still attempting to find its center in places (an instrumental medley of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and a Woody Herman tune dissolved into tuneless mayhem), but it provides Hicks with the necessary backing, particularly when performing Hot Licks classics such as “I Scare Myself,” which also appears on the new album, “Where’s the Money” and the ever sultry “Canned Music.”
As soon as Hicks took the stage, he was confronted by a sound problem that affected only one string on his black acoustic guitar, and he made his way through an impromptu sound check with a stream-of-consciousness string of one-liners dragged out of vaudeville annals. The speeches and anecdotes from Hicks provide the music, a throwback to the guitar-fiddle-upright bass days of Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt, with an added richness: This is no act, it’s a lifestyle.
Where others have fashioned swing into something modern — the Gotham band Dave’s True Story has drawn heavily on the Hicks legacy — Dan Hicks has given the music a timelessness, some of which is owed to the hippie acts and country stars with which the band shared bills in its heyday and some of which comes from his own crazy writing style that runs from Martian odes (“Hell I’d Go”) to takes on mental illness (“I’ve Got a Capo on My Brain”) and love (“How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away”). He also has fun with the Tom Waits’ after-hours dirge “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” turning it into a bit of sarcastic afternoon reflection on a nightclub.
Hicks and the Hot Licks made their reputation through a mere four albums recorded for Blue Thumb and Epic — Sony Legacy is working on a compilation for 2001 — and his idiosyncratic style has made his below-the-radar profile frustrating for few beyond his die-hard fans. For two hours, Hicks made the return of the Hot Licks a viable outing that has more going for it than just a collection of stars (Waits, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Brian Setzer) who made guest appearances on his album. It’s a nutty night for anyone who ventures into the Hot Licks world, but staggeringly refreshing and lighthearted.