Reviewed by AJ Miranda.
Look, what can some nobody internet reviewer say about Bill Hicks that would change your mind? Frankly, I’m not here to attempt to change your mind. You either love him, hate him or haven’t heard of him. His influence is undeniable. Denis Leary owes his career to him. And we Austinites owe him a lot for our comedy scene. This town was like a second home to Hicks.
What I will do is try my best to let you know who should and shouldn’t purchase Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, based on the contents of this two-CD/two-DVD best-of album.
Let’s break it down: If you have Arizona Bay and/or Rant in E-Minor and thought they were just OK or maybe good-but-not-great, this collection isn’t for you. A lot of what spans the two CDs is the same tracks from those classic albums. I’d say about a quarter of the material on the CDs is previously unreleased, but it doesn’t differ too much from what Hicks was talking about at that time.
If you’re a Hicks newcomer and curious about the man, you should get this album. It’s a solid crash course into some of his more memorable bits (attacks on Southern Baptists, consumerism and Jay Leno). The fact that you’re getting so much bang for your buck is a reason to use The Essential Collection as an intro to Hicks rather than his previous albums. You’re getting almost four hours worth of entertainment here.
And if you’re a Hicks zealot or completist, this album is absolutely for you. Not for the CDs, but for the DVDs, which are the real selling point. You get four performances (mostly 20-minute sets) of Hicks at his old Houston stomping grounds, Comix Annex. That these four sets span from 1981 to ’86 and all on the same stage makes for some fascinating viewing. You get to see Hicks mature, both physically and comedically. He goes from a clean-cut and drug-free 19 year old (who looks about 15) making jokes about high school to the chainsmoking and hard-drinking leather jacket comic we all came to know and love. But even in 1981, one year out of high school, Hicks looked at home on stage. No nerves. Toward the end of a 20-minute set, Hicks talks about the draft and registering for Selective Services. “I think it’s so unfair to go from high school to war,” he says. “The one thing worse than high school.” It’s juvenile material, for sure, but it shows the early signs of a restless comic with the righteous anger we knew Hicks to be.
The second DVD features a handful of sets called the Austin Bootleg Series. These were all amatuer videos shot by Hicks’ brother, and they span the later part of Hicks career, including a set filmed weeks before his pancreatic cancer diagnosis and a set months after it. There’s an unsettling beauty in seeing Hicks on stage, cracking jokes about his diminishing appearance and attributing it to everything but the cancer that took his life months later. The audience, oblivious to his illness, laughs along.
Get this collection if you loved Hicks or are curious about what the big deal was. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite one-liners from the DVDs: “I just got back from Birmingham, Alabama. I’m still getting over the time difference. It’s 1964 there.”