Dan Hicks offers up an off-kilter holiday

Give a listen to Dan Hicks’ reworking of “Carol of the Bells” and the traditional Christmas classic might sound, well, a bit off-kilter.

But only for about 30 seconds because, just around the 31st second, the realization hits: These guys (and gals) are good.

The century-old standard, as reimagined by Hicks via scat-sung lyrics, is played and sung perfectly and sounds, albeit decidedly different, just as memorable as a more traditional rendition sung by a choir.

Actually, this progression – call it the journey from “Hmm?” to “Wow!” – describes much of what Hicks has done over the years, both individually and with the Hot Licks, the swing/jazz/acoustic/whatever ensemble he has fronted on and off for more than 40 years.

On Saturday, Southern Nevadans can hear some classic tunes by Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, as well as Hicksensian twists on some Christmas favorites, when the band performs at the Historic Fifth Street School.

The show is being dubbed “Holidaze in Hicksville” and will include performances of songs off Hicks’ Christmas album, “Crazy for Christmas.”

Last week, during a phone interview from the road, Hicks said the Christmas album is the product of a record company executive’s suggestion that he cover a few holiday classics.

Presumably, implicit in the suggestion was that Hicks’ covers be built upon the genre-spanning sound fans always have expected from Hicks.

“It’s just me,” Hicks explained. “It just comes kind of naturally to do a scat version of ‘Carol of the Bells,’ rather than do a nice, straight, Andy Williams arrangement of ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’

“It’s just kind of more me, I guess. It’s intentional, but it’s also: I don’t have any choice.”

Hicks describes “Holidaze in Hicksville” as “Christmas tunes sprinkled in the general, regular set. So it’s not like wall-to-wall Christmas. It’s like a Hot Licks show, but it’s a Christmas show.”

The show and the album are, in a way, spiritual successors of the Christmas shows Hicks and other Bay Area musicians would play during the ’70s.

“That’s what kind of got me started on Christmas songs,” Hicks said.

“But I’ve been amassing a pretty good Christmas repertoire through the years, because we’ve been doing ‘Holidaze in Hicksville’ and doing Christmas shows for the last I-don’t-know while now.”

However, the holiday standards Hicks and the Hot Licks will play likely will be altered a bit to illustrate Hicks’ – here comes that phrase again — off-kilter sensibilities.

“It kind of turns out we don’t do a lot of real Christmas songs,” Hicks said. “We do like, standards, but we put new Christmas words to them.

“I guess we’ve got one song we do, ‘Rudolph the Bald-Headed Reindeer.’ But people are grown up. They can take it.”

The Christmas show and CD are the latest events in a career that saw Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks appearing on such national TV shows as Flip Wilson’s variety show and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” during the ’70s, and even saw Hicks landing the cover of Rolling Stone.

Hicks said his musical style – a sort of jazz/swing/folk-inflected blend not heard much elsewhere at the time – arose out of his own folk/acoustic roots.

“I just kind of wanted to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “And I wanted to play folk music, the kind of acoustic music where you can hear the words and hear the harmonies and hear singing and picking.

“So that was kind of what I wanted to do, and whatever happened with it happened with it.”

Then, at the height of the band’s crossover success, Hicks called it quits.

“I kind of got tired of being a bandleader, so I sort of disbanded (the Hot Licks) in the ’70s,” Hicks said. “But I kept performing. I had different guys and different bands that used different names and different instruments and just kept going.”

Hicks correctly takes it as a compliment when told of that at-first-off-kilter-then-totally-perfect description of his, and his band’s, musicianship.

“I like to get serious when we start playing,” Hicks said. “I’ve always played with good players and good singers. I’ve always wanted to meet a certain standard.”

These days, Hicks happens upon fans who’ve been with him for his entire ride.

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “There are people who come up to me, ‘I was in the Troubadour audience when you recorded ‘Where’s the Money’ in ’71.’ A lot of people go back and have been fans for a long time.”

These days, Hicks even sees younger kids in his audiences although, he said, “I’m not especially worrying about, ‘Gee, I hope some young people are diggin’ this.’ But I always appreciate it.”

“One of my favorite compliments from the audience is, when I get done, they were getting the humor in the tunes, they were listening, they were alive out there, they appreciated it,” Hicks said.

“So we try to keep it light onstage. We still have the girls and the violin and the guitars and try to keep it entertaining and positive and light, and we just like to have somebody glad that they came.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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