“Enigmas on Thin Ice.” That was the title Rolling Stone writer Charles Perry used in his 1973 cover story on the breakup of seminal San Francisco folk act Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks. Given that the band—with its refreshing Western-swing/jazz grooves and call-and-response between Hicks and his female backup singers—was reaching new levels of popularity, the title seemed fitting.
After all, what kind of musician shuts things down the moment his profile heats up?
“The writer asked me to name the article,” says Hicks, 71, during a recent phone chat from his home in the Bay Area. “I threw the enigmas-on-thin-ice thing out there as a joke. Officially, I was tired of being a band leader.”
He never regrets breaking up the band. He continued to perform live and make records, and in 2000 Hicks and his Licks reunited for Beatin’ the Heat, an album featuring collaborations with Tom Waits and Bette Midler. He’s still best known for his classic 1969 songs “I Scare Myself” and “Canned Music.” But in the last dozen years, Hicks has continued to earn acclaim for his original music as well as novelty tunes and assorted parodies. Especially on his most recent release, 2010’s Crazy for Christmas, of which he’ll play plenty during his Dec. 22 set at Historic Fifth Street School downtown. The disc includes “Santa Gotta Choo Choo,” where St. Nick treats himself to a new set of rails, and “Christmas Mornin’,” about how the North Pole winds down after a long night of gift-giving. It’s all put to music that makes country, ragtime and pop kiss each other under the mistletoe. Thwapping stand-up bass. Scorching fiddle. Skiffle-strumming guitars.
“I avoided doing a Christmas album for years,” Hicks says. “But recently the powers that be wondered where my holiday record was. So I acquiesced.”
Turns out Hicks possessed a backlog of yule-log ditties. Having played with the Christmas Jug Band since the mid-’70s and performed holiday sets over the years, he ended up with a formidable repertoire. The musical eggnog isn’t too spiked, though. The terms “irreverent” and “dry humor” are often applied to Hicks and the Licks—for good reason.
“It comes naturally to me,” Hicks says. “When I start creating or coming up with stuff, the humor’s in there. It’s innate to what I do.”
Humor comes with the territory—namely Hicksville, a bizarro version of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. Indeed, Hicks has incorporated the mythical province in many of his album titles such as Last Train to Hicksville and Return to Hicksville.
“In high school, I noticed the lunch-room straws were made in Hicksville, N.Y.,” he says. “Since then, I’ve been to the actual Hicksville a few times and bought everything I could from the town’s sporting-goods stores. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but also a state of mind, a way of looking at things differently.”
With time, Hicks has learned to solve his own enigma: “I never take anything for granted, though. I want to please. I want the audience to dig it right away and be glad they came. I’m like, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for letting the audience get what I intended.’”