|"Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks"
Reviewed by John Orr
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It must feel great to be Dan Hicks. There's all that talent, as a brilliant songwriter and a fine singer and musician. Then, on his 60th birthday, Dec. 9, 2001, more than 40 excellent musicians, all friends of his, gathered at the Warfield in San Francisco to perform his music with him.
People Hicks played with in high school, back in the 1950s, in addition to members of all of Hicks bands since then, including the Charlatans, and current and former Hot Licks.
One song alone would be worth the dollars to most Hicks fans: ''I Scare Myself.'' It's Hicks' ''Night on Bald Mountain,'' a nightmare of loneliness turned to stunning music that grabs listeners and thrills them.
It is a suite, with verses of lyrics, and an extended instrumental bridge that has allowed some brilliant violinists over the year to really strut some stuff. It brings chills. It's an amazing song.
At the birthday show, there was an actual strings section, there were so many violinists on hand -- along with flutes, basses, guitars, saxes, accordian, drums, mandolins, piano, fingerbells and sandblocks. At least.
For the all-important violin lead for ''I Scare Myself,'' current Hot Lick violinist Brian Godchaux took first solo, followed by David La Flamme, who'd originated the solo as one of the original Hot Licks (then went on with his own band, A Beautiful Day, for the great success of ''White Bird''). Both were excellent.
But then Sid Page took the final violin solo, and simply took the whole tune to an even higher level.
Known as ''Symphony'' Sid Page in the early '70s when he was part of the Hot Licks, Page combines classical training, a rock 'n' roll attitude and pure talent in pretty much a unique package. These days he is a leading concert master and soloist in Los Angeles, recording movie sound tracks and running stage orchestras for big-deal pop performers.
On ''I Scare Myself'' at the Hicks show, Page started with a few little licks and musical references, then dived deep with slides, slurs and hammers into a stunning solo that was even more impressive than what he recorded with Hicks on the album ''Striking It Rich'' back in 1972. And in 2001, chewing gum the whole time.
The show begins with the whole crowd on stage -- 45 musicians -- to perform ''You Gotta Believe'' in a big jam. Then, over the rest of the 15 Hicks tunes on the DVD, the aggregations change. For some tunes it is the modern Hot Licks and Lickettes, for others the early version, for some it's former Charlatans, for one it is a couple of guys who played guitar with Hicks in high school.
Tunes included ''Milk Shakin' Mama,'' ''Shootin' Straight,'' ''News From Up the Street,'' ''Canned Music,'' and many others, including -- of course -- Hicks' earliest hit, ''How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?''
Hicks has been called a national treasure, which is understating it. He is a universal musical treasure, someone who has taken Western swing, jazz, rock and folk and created a unique catalog full of humor, pathos and human understanding. His tunes are often musically complex, with vocal calls and response over impressive instrumental arrangements, brilliant musicianship required of everybody in the band.
Any generation of Hicks fans might have their own favorites among his many bands. And while the current embodiment of the Hot Licks and Lickettes is great, my own favorite group was the early 's 70s version.
Notably, after doing ''News From Up the Street'' with that group, Hicks himself tells the audience, ''Some of these songs I really haven't done [since the early days] because it wasn't the right sound, but these are the folks who make it." Which is a hugely gracious thing to come from Hicks. The audience yells its agreement, and Hicks follows with ''And it's not even their birthday,'' which got a laugh, one of many.
It's a good show and a delight for anyone who loves music. The DVD includes two tunes -- ''Shootin' Straight'' and ''Reelin' Down'' that are not on the CD version.
The direction, lighting and editing of the DVD were disappointing. And while the sound was great for the actual performances, for some reason it is uneven during the Hicks patter between tunes. And it would have been nice to have better identification of the musicians. Hicks calls out everyone's name at some point during the show, but it's hard to keep track, and something in the credits or the enclosed booklet would have helped.
Still, it's a keeper. The music carries all.
A lesson in merchandising
Surfdog released ''Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks'' as a DVD package with a CD included, and as a CD with DVD package included. They did not release a CD only or DVD only. What's the difference? Well, the DVD package has a booklet with a couple more pages than the CD package. Otherwise, the DVD and CD are the same, either way. The other difference? The CD package costs more, which is further evidence about the weirdness of CD marketing. So, BUY THE DVD PACKAGE, even if you don't have a DVD player.
See our features on Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, including a preview of the show that became this DVD.
Buy the DVD at Amazon.com.