Dan Hicks &
the Hot Licks,
Beatin' the Heat
(Surfdog Records, 2000)

Much has been made of Dan Hicks re-forming the Hot Licks, his superb western swing-cum-hipster band of the 1970s. This is not that band. The Hot Licks have not re-formed, they've been re-invented. And even though these are not the original Hot Licks, that's not to say that they're not equally hot.

This is a project that more than lives up to the hype. The new licks come from Hicks on rhythm and Tom Mitchell on lead guitar, Kevin Smith on the string bass, Gregg Bissonette at the drum kit and the vocals of Jessica Harper and Karla De Vito backing Hicks. The only holdout from the original Hot Licks is Sid Page, the extraordinary violinist, who is as awesome now as he was then. This is the core band that delights exclusively on nine of the 15 numbers herein and backs the big-name guest stars on the remainder. There are a handful of other impressive accompanists, as well.

The opener, "My Cello," in which our man Dan outlines the reasons a gal should dump that other guy for him, to the accompaniment of a tasty tropical swinging lope, is classic Hot Licks. From the gorgeous vocal harmonizing to the soaring violin, this is every bit as exciting as the last Hot Licks album of 25 years back.

And, speaking of those big name guest stars: Brian Setzer brings his stinging and swinging guitar to "I Don't Want Love" and "Meet Me On The Corner." The former is about the downside of love ("Some folks say when you fall in love, you lose your appetite / If love makes you feel that way, listen to what I say / If love makes you give up steak and potatoes, rice, corn, chitlins and tomatoes / if love makes you give up all those things, I don't want love"). On the latter, Setzer joins Elvis Costello on a song that explores the loss of a reality grip ("I can't sleep, I can't eat / I'm a drummer and I can't keep the beat / and when I wake up tomorrow / there'll be something wrong with my feet").

A strange jungle backbeat sets up "I Scare Myself," with Rickie Jones sharing vocals. When Thomas Dolby covered this one in the '80s, it was as close as Hicks got to a hit. Rickie Lee brings more excitement, not to mention the female perspective to this version. She's back for duo duty on "Driftin'," too.

Hicks and Tom Waits share vocal chores on "I'll Tell You Why That Is," and Hicks does a fine job covering Wait's "The Piano Has Been Drinkin'."

Bette Midler, who coincidentally recorded with Tom Waits a decade ago, sits in on "Strike It While It's Hot!," in which the pair assay the merits of paying attention to life. "You be standin' on the corner lookin' like a stupid loner / waitin' for a bus / but the bus'll pass you by 'cause you couldn't catch its eye / and you can bite its dust." Hicks the songsmith is all over this collection.

Not all of the high points come with the accompaniment of the stars, but that's what will get the radio play (minimal though it be) that this wonderful collection gets. Fans of Dan Hicks, as a Hot Lick, an Acoustic Warrior or as a solo act, will find much to delight here. The star power is frosting.

[ by Mark E. Gallo ]

Buy Beatin' the Heat from Amazon.com.