It's kind of surprising that I'm not a bigger fan of Dan Hicks, especially considering that he has an obvious appreciation for vintage American music, writes lyrics that express a humorously sardonic worldview, and was a founding member of one of my favorite bands from 1960s San Francisco, the Charlatans. These are all things that count for a lot in my book. At one time, I owned almost his entire major-label output yet parted with all but one of these albums after I came to the conclusion that they were just a little too cornball for my taste. I still have my copy of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks' Original Recordings LP from 1969 primarily because the featured versions of "Canned Music" and "I Scare Myself" are absolutely outstanding, although I think the remaining tracks range from merely decent to downright hokey.
So it was quite a pleasure to discover how great this CD is. In fact, I'll come right out and say that if you can own only one title by Hicks, Early Muses is the one to have since it captures the singer-guitarist-drummer during a most interesting transitional phase toward the end of his tenure with the Charlatans and prior to his formation of the Hot Licks, which was first a side project and ultimately his main musical focus. 19 of these 20 tracks were recorded as publishing demos in late 1967 and early 1968, with Hicks handling the singing and guitar-playing duties and in certain instances overdubbing himself on percussion, harmonica, autoharp, and banjo. Future Hot Licks Jaime Leopold and, to a lesser extent, Jon Weber assist respectively on standup bass and lead guitar on several songs, while a pre-It's a Beautiful Day David LaFlamme contributes on violin. Leopold and LaFlamme had both previously been in the instrumental outfit Orkustra with future Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil. According to the CD's booklet notes, Hicks first became acquainted with Leopold, and then met LaFlamme through him, which in turn led to an introduction to Weber, though the violinist and guitarist never played in the band at the same time. To add to the convolution, Bill Douglass was the bass player at live shows during the early days of the Hot Licks, which was often a supporting act for the Charlatans while Hicks was also still a member of that band. By the time he was an ex-Charlatan and working on Original Recordings, Leopold and Weber had come on board full-time, Sid Page had taken over for LaFlamme on violin, and singers Sherry Snow (formerly of Blackburn & Snow) and Christina Gancher had replaced original Lickettes Mitzi Douglass and Patti Urban. Even that lineup was short-lived, but I digress.
THE HOT LICKS' FIRST LIVE APPEARANCE, EARLY 1968 - L TO R:
MITZI DOUGLASS, PATTI URBAN, HICKS, & BILL DOUGLASS
MITZI DOUGLASS, PATTI URBAN, HICKS, & BILL DOUGLASS
What I really like about these demos is that - in addition to the usual western swing, jazz, and gypsy music elements that are found in most of Hicks' songs - they possess an engagingly stoned vibe that is absent on most of his subsequent material. For lack of a better way to put it, these performances sound so 1967-1968 and therefore possess a certain je ne sais quoi that is unique to music from the latter half of that decade. Enthusiasts of musicians from this period will know exactly what I'm talking about. The sole exception is the opening track, a cute version of "Home on the Range" that features a young Dan and his father singing into a primitive home recording device, circa 1953. "Waitin' for the '103'," "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away," "Slow Movin'," "The Jukies' Ball," and "Canned Music" were eventually re-recorded for the first Hot Licks' album, but, with the exception of the last track, I like this CD's stripped-down versions better. It's a bit strange to hear the aforementioned group of tunes without the Lickettes' backing vocals, but you may reach the verdict that their cloying presence on the better-known renditions is extraneous after hearing these earlier run-throughs. The Latin-tinged "Shorty Goes South" introduces one of Hicks' recurring lyrical characters as does the ode to saloon pugilism, "O'Reilly at the Bar," which was eventually redone on Striking It Rich. "The Innocent Bystander," perhaps a meditation on a Haight-Ashbury outsider, and the compellingly bizarre "Laughing Song" were also recast on that album in slightly more gussied-up incarnations. Do you like songs about animals? If so, you just might love "Euphonious Whale" as much as I do. This reading can't really be improved upon, but the version on Last Train to Hicksville ain't half bad either. That LP also includes an updated take on "My Old Timey Baby," a song with lyrics about a thrift store-frequenting hippie chick. But since the piece is definitely a product of the 1960s, this earlier recording just sounds so much more natural. Remember what I was saying about that stoned vibe earlier on? Well, the sublime acoustic psychedelia of "He Don't Care" and "The Gypsy's Secret" represent exactly what I was talking about. Only Dan Hicks could come up with titles like "Shall I Ask and Elf?" and "I've Got a Capo on My Brain" as well as penning lyrics that are equally distinctive. Listen, and you'll hear what I mean. "Living with a Lie" comes off as a straight-ahead country number, while "Love Bug Blues" ranks as this CD's most rhythmic performance. Judging by its title, you probably wouldn't suspect that the subject matter of "All-Day Sucker" is about a guy whose feelings for a girl are unreciprocated, but with the biting wit of Hicks, anything is possible. On the other hand, "Fallin' Apart" does not concern itself with the dissolution of a relationship but rather the effects of a person experiencing a nervous breakdown. Although never commercially released by Hicks, the band Tongue & Groove, which featured ex-bandmates and former Charlatans Mike Ferguson and Lynne Hughes, did a pretty good interpretation of this song on their self-titled LP from 1969.
**On a related note, this blog's very first post, a bootleg of Charlatans concert recordings from 1967-1969 titled From the Red Dog to Straight Street - Live in the 60s, has been re-upped in FLAC for your listening pleasure.
1. Intro: Home on the Range
2. Waitin' for the "103"
3. How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?
4. Slow Movin'
5. Shorty Goes South
6. The Innocent Bystander
7. The Jukies' Ball
8. Euphonious Whale
9. He Don't Care
10. The Gypsy's Secret
11. O'Reilly at the Bar
12. My Old Timey Baby
13. Shall I Ask an Elf?
14. Living with a Lie
15. I've Got a Capo on My Brain
16. Canned Music
17. Love Bug Blues
18. All-Day Sucker
19. Fallin' Apart
20. The Laughing Song