The best sample of Dan Hicks-style humor Wednesday came not from Hicks, but from the audience that filled the Vine St. Bar & Grill for the singer-guitarist's first major L.A. appearance in several years.
It came between songs, when a fan gushed, "It's like you were never gone." After a perfectly timed pause, a woman on the other side of the room added, "Sort of."
Hicks, on the other hand, confined the humor to his lyrics and music, forgoing the kind of repartee that marked the San Franciscan's shows in the early '70s. His comments Wednesday were limited to mumbled introductions like, "We're gonna get into a bolero kinda genre."
Hicks looked as excited as a guy pumping gas in Palmdale, and his singing was equally deadpan--the ideal mode for the scatty, rapid-fire word barrages he delivered with astonishing alacrity. There were also some slow songs that exposed his precarious pitch--sort of a wobbly Mose Allison/Michael Franks timbre.
But it fit his sleepy-eyed character, and his lyrics turned the response to his vocal limitations from a wince to a sympathetic smile.
But the fast songs dominated, from a novelty in the spirit of '30s screwball swing ("My mother died of asbestos / My father's name was Estes. . .") to a tightknit, funny portrait of the singer as a tireless satyr.
The icing on the cake--more like the strychnine in the mousse, actually--was a troubled study of infidelity near the end of the set. At a haunting mid-tempo, it ushered the moody spirit of the classic Hicks reverie "I Scare Myself" into dark regions of the heart and demonstrated convincingly that he's more than a novelty act.
Still, Hicks' fate in the marketplace remains uncertain. He doesn't really have the chops to score with the jazz audience (the work of his backing unit on stand-up bass, lead guitar and violin was solid, but not especially distinctive), and these days nostalgia means the '50s and '60s, not the '30s and '40s of Hicks' jump and swing. Here's hoping he can survive in there between the cracks.
The Vine St. engagement continues through Saturday.