Alive & Lickin’ will inevitably be compared with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks’ peerless 1971 live album, Where’s the Money?, but Alive & Lickin’ does not try to fill those shoes and walks tall all on its own. The new recording is neither a revival nor a cash-in; it is an entirely new incarnation of the Hot Licks (now the Hot Licks rather than His Hot Licks), playing a new phase of Dan Hicks’ happy/melancholy hipster folk-jazz. Only 5 of the 13 songs are taken from the original Hot Licks set, and those are significantly rearranged.
There are absurdly fluent scat workouts on “I Feel Like Singing” and “The Buzzard Was Their Friend”. The new Hot Licks (Susan Rabin & Annabelle Cruz/harmony vocals, Brian Godchaux/violin & mandolin, Tom Mitchell/lead guitar, Steve Alcott/upright bass) are not afraid to muss up the super-tight arrangements of the early songs and add their own signatures. These guys make it clear from the start that they are not out to rekindle the dead past, but to strike sparks in the present. For those who can’t imagine anyone but Sid Page and John Girton playing those deadly fiddle/guitar parts, check out Godchaux and Mitchell. The Licks are different, but they’re still grinning like demons and smokin’ hard.
Dan Hicks’ songwriting and arranging is as wacky, otherworldly and musically complex in its way as the work of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. One proof that Hicks is not just capitalizing on the reputation of his old band is the superb quality of the new material. Recent songs like the trippy “Shooting Straight” and the densely lyrical “My Cello” take their place with the best of Hicks’ early songs. The band’s performances are moodily evocative and effortlessly precise. “Shooting Straight” repays repeated listening, as its mesmerizing flow and shifting musical layers slowly reveal themselves. This is slippery, meandering, jazz-inflected, psychedelic-tinged acoustic music that has no precedent, although its antecedents go to the deepest roots of American music.
For this set also, Dan Hicks has chosen some exquisite covers from the traditional folk and jazz repertoires. An obscure gem called “Comes Love” is the outstanding discovery but “I Got Mine”, “Four or Five Times”, and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” are all beautiful selections. These tunes evoke moods and emotions that would have been unknown territory to the original Hot Licks. They show how much Dan’s music has matured and expanded its limits between then and now. Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking” (originally featured as one of the duets with Waits included on last year’s acclaimed Beatin’ the Heat) is a more obvious crowd pleaser, and Hicks’ affectionate mini-parody of Waits is hilarious. Finally, there are the acidic between-song raps. Right from the get-go, when a heckler yells “What’s up Hicks?” and the singer drawls, “Well friend, I’ll tell you what’s up”, we know hard times are ahead for anyone who tries to match wits with Mr. Hicks.
The “Thanks a Million” section of the inner sleeve concludes with a gratitude wish to “that Great Spirit that continues to watch over me and has made it possible that I haven’t had to have a day job since 1965”. During that time, Dan Hicks and both sets of Hot Licks have tastefully avoided the vulgarity of stardom, while preserving their small, bejeweled space on record store shelves. Ladies and Gentlemen, open your wallets and proceed to section H. The Great Spirit wants you to keep Dan Hicks out of a day job.