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Like it is, not like it was: Dan Hicks at the Linda.

Photo: Julia Zave

A Genuine Cynic

By David Greenberger

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks

The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, June 22

The music that Dan Hicks brought to the public realm in the early ’70s was inspired by songs and styles from 30 years prior. Those albums, relatively successful commercially, are now further behind us in time than the western swing and cowboy songs he’s loved since his youth.

Last Sunday’s show in Albany found Hicks accompanied by his preferred ensemble: guitar, violin/mandolin, bass (all glasses-wearing men), and two women backup singers. The 90-minute set moved easily from old favorites (“I Scare Myself,” “I Feel Like Singing,” “Canned Music”) to more recent selections (“Savin’ My Lovin’,” “Who Are You?”) and even a brand-new one to end the night (“Blues My Naughty Baby Gave to Me”). Such was the inviting patina of it all that still-unreleased songs sounded like old friends. Hicks himself, now in the second half of his 60s, was as droll as ever, never completely concealing the cynicism behind his between-song patter and attitude, which was constructed out of show-biz platitudes, non sequiturs and sly glances. While the realities of mid-level commercial success empowered some of his comments, Hicks has been disdainful of the music business since he was in his 20s. His most successful albums bear the titles Where’s the Money, Strikin’ It Rich, and Last Train to Hicksville. In fact, his sarcastic barbs and wise-guy lyrics are part of what makes the songs so enduring. Without his personality running free through the songs, we’d be left with a bucket of nostalgia. The countryside is dotted with festivals and fairs where happy-faced acoustic ensembles ply their trade, coating the music in sugar and pretending everything was better “back then.”

Like Wilford Brimley, Dan Hicks started out presenting himself on stage as an older man than he was. Now that he has become that older man, there’s a deeper resonance. When he emerged from the Haight-Ashbury scene, Hicks stood in opposition to the psychedelia and jamming of the day. Now his music can be heard on its own resilient terms (long after his contemporaries’ cannabis- bolstered “musical explorations” have been rendered quaint and toothless). In 1971 Dan Hicks was a compelling alternative. It’s more than a third of a century later and he’s still exploring the same music. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks honor songcraft, musical skills (even referenced in the band name), and finding ways for traditions to move forward through time. Their show was a demonstration that nostalgia need not be the grand marshal of the parade. Great songs and players, and their obliquely charismatic leader, are fearlessly marching through the contemporary world.

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