Music | MUSIC NOMAD

Getting back on the right track

Dan Hicks and Geoff Muldaur return to musical form

by Paul Fisher

In all walks of life, those who make successful comebacks have always been admired. They become figures of resilience with a commendable never-say-die attitude; think Muhammad Ali or even Bill Clinton.

Two American singer/songwriter/guitarists have recently made impressive comebacks. Dan Hicks and Geoff Muldaur have turned their careers around and shown themselves not to have lost any spark of their past mastery. If anything, their time out has given them an extra edge, as if any ideas that might have been fermenting in their minds over the years have perfectly matured and are ready to uncork.

Dan Hicks began his musical career as a drummer with San Francisco psychedelic pioneers the Charlatans, before emerging from behind his kit to play guitar, compose songs and form Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks in 1969. Over four albums, the group became a cult phenomenon with a quirky blend of folk and swing, drawing on country and ’30s vocal jazz, and with Hicks’ deadpan humor completing a nostalgic yet flourishing, idiosyncratic style.

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks played spots on some of American TV’s top-rated shows, and Hicks was twice featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. The last studio album recorded by the band, in its initial incarnation, was 1973’s “Last Train to Hicksville.” During the ’80s, Hicks went solo, sometimes even enlisting help from former Hot Licks on his sporadic output, but the magical verve had disappeared.

All that magic returned in abundance on last year’s “Beatin’ the Heat,” Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks’ first studio album in more than two decades. Hicks and former Hot Licks mainstays are joined by an impressive list of Hicks admirers — Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Brian Setzer and Rickie Lee Jones. Jones shares vocals with Hicks on his song “I Scare Myself,” covered successfully in 1984 by Thomas Dolby.

Throughout the album that laconic wit and those playful melodies are delivered with impeccable musicianship, achieving the unfeasible with the untried and untested, reminding old fans of his off-beat ingenuity and offering a truly refreshing alternative to anyone new to his music. It is a comeback worth waiting for, and probably has nothing to do with the fact he comes from Little Rock, Ark.

Geoff Muldaur started out performing solo in the folk clubs of Cambridge, Mass., while still playing guitar and kazoo and singing with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. The Jug Band enjoyed somewhat surprising cult success, making several national TV appearances. Maria D’Amato also sang and played kazoo with the group. She and Muldaur got married and, after the band broke up, recorded a couple of albums together. (One of these included Muldaur’s song “Brazil,” which went on to inspire the British Monty Python comedy team and a Terry Gilliam film of the same name.) However, after their marriage broke up, so did their music career as a duo.

While Maria Muldaur’s first solo album went platinum in the U.S., Geoff Muldaur followed along a more eclectic, and less commercially successful, path. He joined Paul Butterworth’s Blues Project, before recording “Geoff Muldaur’s Having a Wonderful Time.” His influences had broadened from his 1963 first solo album — widely praised for its interpretations of songs by country blues greats such as Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie Johnson — to include ragtime, gospel and jazz. The album even featured some of Duke Ellington’s musicians. However, despite his obvious talent and earnest approach, this and the subsequent “Motion” sold poorly. After a few more commercial failures, including a duo record with Amos Garrett, Muldaur decided in 1981 to take a near hiatus from recording and performing that would last 17 years.

He wrote music for documentaries, films and jingles, got a job with Hannibal Records and wrote non-music-related computer software. The desire to record and perform again coincided with a loss of interest in his other work. A concert promoter put together a band, while Muldaur took to the road as a solo musician, initially in Italy. In 1998, the comeback album “The Secret Handshake” was heralded as perhaps Muldaur’s finest.

The esoteric side to his musical persona (which, in the end, perhaps confused, rather than grabbed, new listeners) was kept at bay in favor of a more straight-ahead collection of blues, folk and ragtime tunes, adding a touch of those Jug Band days. Perhaps his time spent working on the other side of the music business had given him an insight on how to market himself. His voice never sounded better, and while the approach was simpler, the tunes, whether covers or originals, were nevertheless given his own distinctive treatment.

That winning formula is pretty much repeated on his latest recording, “Password.” Once again the works of Charlie Patton, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie Johnson sit side by side with Muldaur originals that recall a variety of influences without ever being derivative. Woodwinds, a string section and a gospel trio all add to the variety, as do the superlative voices of his longtime friends, the McGarrigle sisters.

At a festival in Canada a few years back, I was surprised to find myself queuing up for some food behind Geoff Muldaur. Although he might not have performed in Japan for a number of years, aside from two reunion tours of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, I learned that Muldaur is a Japanophile and a regular visitor here. He has traveled around extensively and has a particular taste for the Japanese countryside.

This time, with just guitar in hand and bass player Bobby Kimmel, he will be playing at a few fairly offbeat locations, no doubt taking the opportunity to explore a bit further. Muldaur is enjoying his comeback. As he says: “I’m traveling around the world playing for people, mostly in humble settings. Very few big deals. It’s simple really. I’m doing what I love to do, and I’ve never felt better.”