Dan Hicks Live at Davies. Dan Hicks is 70 years old and ready to party – here are some live licks for the fans who couldn't make it!

Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks Live at Davies
Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks with Special Guests
Surfdog Records
14 tracks / 75:16

It's as much a birthday party as it is a concert - loose and lots of fun, with surprises and plenty of friends. Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks Live at Davies is a bit of a misnomer, since this CD package is at the same time more and less than the title implies. Of course, when your name is Dan Hicks the 'more' is that your friends happen to be people like David Grisman, John Hammond, Harry Shearer, Maria Muldaur, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Dyke Parks and Ramblin' Jack Elliott (to name a few). On the 'less' side, this is not a Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks concert – not strictly speaking, anyway - since we only get brief appearances by the original line-up and current version of Dan's signature band.

Back to the 'more' side: like any party, there are fun and games. Opening up the proceedings is an honest-to-goodness stage band performing an "Overture Medley" of Dan Hicks tunes ("News from Up the Street/The Innocent Bystander/How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?/Pay Day Blues"). Dan's familiar vocals come on the scene with "By Hook or By Crook" and continue on "Hummin' to Myself," a duet with Maria Muldaur. Another duet immediately follows, this time with Rickie Lee Jones (sounding easily as loose as Hicks), performing "Driftin'," a song not written by Dan but sounding like a perfect fit for The Hot Licks treatment.

"Ladies and gentlemen – still swinging, hypnotic, and irresistible: the original Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks!" Harry Shearer's introduction pretty much sums it up as Dan, Sid Page, Jon Weber, Naomi Ruth Eisenberg, Maryann Price and Jaime Leopold launch into "Evenin' Breeze" sounding as fresh and charming as ever. Falling right back into place, hearing the Lickettes laughing behind the solos, one can just imagine how hard this combo would swing if they had the whole night to themselves.

The 'new' Hot Licks band – Dan, Daria and Roberta, Paul Smith, Benito Cortez and Paul Robinson – follow with "He Don't Care," more of a comedy piece than a composition, and a curious choice for this occasion. At about six minutes it becomes a pretty long stoner joke, with Dan letting the audience know, "it's almost over, people" during the closing vamp.

The 70 year-old birthday boy then surprises us with the out-of-character sentimentality of "Song For My Father," with Bruce Forman and Van Dyke Parks joining in on the delightfully jazzy interlude. "Take The A Train" doesn't fare as well, with fine playing from the stage band but a tossed-off delivery of haphazard, repetitive lyrics from Hicks.

"The Jim Kweskin Jug Band was an inspiration to just a whole bunch of people," says Dan. We'll have to take his word for it. At any rate, Kweskin is given a featured track here, performing "Beedle Um Bum," in classic jug-band style.

The glorious "I Feel Like Singin'" suffers from too many chefs, with no less than eleven stellar names contributing to the 'scat' section. The guest artists eventually seem to abandon real scat singing and evolve into uninspired birthday tributes delivered in pseudo-vocalese unworthy of the charm of the original. The pace is slower than we're used to - no doubt to accommodate the guest vocalists who were (apparently) not as prepared as they should have been. When Dan brings the song back to its closing scat section with the Lickettes joining in, it's a welcome return to the form of the original...

The album closes with what sounds like the assembled musicians all onstage backing up The Hot Licks on Dan's classic, "I Scare Myself," complete with Symphony Sid's manic, extended violin solo. With added input from various players, the song passes the twelve minute mark before ending in a multiple-crescendo of darkly Latin-tinged sound and fury, eventually engulfed by the applause of the audience.

Certainly, a good time was had by all in attendance, although you might feel a little bit like you're just looking in through the window and wondering what all the shouting's about. Light-years removed from the landmark Where's the Money live album (of course), the performances are a bit unrehearsed-sounding. So, yeah.... this was a birthday party with some pretty cool guests. A fun time for sure, but that small taste of the original band only served to whet my appetite for more of the pure stuff. That makes this album a keeper for the fan-base but most likely a puzzler for the uninitiated, who might just say, 'so what's the big deal?'

-Bert Saraco

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