By Michael Katz
Perhaps you have been feeling just a bit Grinch-y as the holiday season reaches full steam. Maybe your skin crawled just a little when you heard the canned Christmas music in the supermarket aisles before the Thanksgiving turkey was even carved. If that’s the case, could there be any better tidings than the news that Dan Hicks has released a Christmas album, Crazy For Christmas. Hicks and the Hot Licks brought their Holidaze in Hicksville to McCabe’s Guitar Shop Saturday night, spreading Yule mirth and much more over two sets, the first sold out and the second nearly so.
Hicks has been mixing elements of jazz, folk, swing and old fashioned rock and roll for five decades, presented with a droll, self-deprecating sense of humor reflected in both his lyrics and his running onstage commentary that keep the show fresh as ever. Saturday night he opened up with a swinging gypsy guitar version of the old standard “Avalon,” which introduced the current Hot Licks as first rate soloists in their own right. (Or, as Hicks acknowledged in sly mimicry, “We’ve got a life, too.”) Fiddler Benito Cortez, guitarist David Bell and bassist Paul Smith make up the “Lickmen”, while vocalists Roberta Donnay and Daria compose the Lickettes, providing backup vocals, occasional solos and a two woman Greek chorus throughout.
Hicks included plenty of old favorites throughout both shows, some of them with updated lyrics, such as “Canned Music,” the first vocal offering in the opening set. Hicks’ voice is soft and understated, but just when you get too comfortable he will slip in something slyly subversive. “Canned Music” dates back to the sixties, but today’s canned music emanates from the internet, and the underlying countervalue of live music seems even more appealing in the current rendition.
When Hicks moved on to the Christmas music, he did so with the usual wink and a nod, announcing that he would return to “the secular portion of the program” after a few numbers from the new album. The CD is a pastiche of standards re-arranged and in some cases re-written by Hicks, such as “Santa Gotta Choo Choo” based on ”Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and originals like “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit.” The latter is vintage Hicks (“Some little fatso is all dressed in red/He even had the gall to swipe the pillow off me bed”), aided and abetted by the harmonizing commentary of the Lickettes.
Then it was back to personal standards, most famously “I Scare Myself,” which gave the Lickmen room to stretch out — from Benito Cortez’ sparkling fiddle solos to a tour de force on guitar by David Bell — while Hicks pantomimed hilariously as if he were doing all the work. Roberta Donnay and Daria had a duet in each set, performing “I’m A Waitress In A Doughnut Shop” with sweet panache in the the opener. Even better was a classic, swinging rendition of “I’m An Old Cow Hand” in the second set. The Johnny Mercer tune has run the performance gamut from Bing Crosby to Sonny Rollins and never sounded better.
Throughout the evening of two generous sets – the group has been on the road continuously throughout the month, but seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd – Hicks and the Hot Licks mixed originals like “Milk Shakin’ Mama,” “The Buzzard Was Their Friend” and “Payday Blues” with standards like “Cherokee” and a nod to Tom Waits with “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” A second set highlight was “Hell I’d Go,” a Hicks original about a volunteer to be abducted by spacemen, with the Lickettes reinvented as the Singing Martianettes. ( “Aloha Saturn, Aurora Borealis/ We’ll hit ‘em all, we’ll land in Dallas..Hey you UFO guy, put me first on standby…”)
It seemed fitting that the second standing ovation of the night, bringing the band back for a second set encore, led to a gently swinging version of “Exactly Like You.” The fact that amidst all the cacophony of the current times, there is still a place for musical virtuosity mixed with wit and a dash of whimsy is truly something to celebrate.