Blair Crimmins and the Hookers are not new. Well, they are. But they sure don’t sound like it. Everything that’s known about good, 1920s New Orleans jazz is there. Sometimes it comes through bright and clear like a jazz funeral down Bourbon Street. Other times it flows and trickles as darkly as bourbon itself. Blair commented at a show in Roswell, GA a couple nights ago that many times record stores don’t know where to file the band’s music. “Punk,” he says. “Right in between the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. They’ll find it.” That may seem a stretch, as every song resonates with all the conventions of jazz, ragtime and vaudeville. But underneath the surface lurks a black-eyed rock n’ roll demon ready to trade a song for a soul, and, willingly, you will.
The Hookers hail from Atlanta, and are the brainchild of Blair Crimmins (Bishop Don), who, after a serious concussion in 2007, decided he never wanted to hear another electric guitar again. After moving to historic Cabbagetown and inheriting his grandmother’s many artifacts from times gone by, something clicked. Gathering some of the top jazz musicians in Atlanta, he formed Blair Crimmins and the Hookers and never looked back.
The Hookers put out The Musical Stylings of… their first full-length album, in 2010. College radio picked up three of the songs in regular rotation, though the most dynamic of songs were left for the curious to sniff out on their own. The album is one crowd-pleaser after another, and after only one or two plays almost every song is ingrained in one’s brain. The opening song, Old Man Cabbage, has a romping baseline and a sinister story- the ghostly possession of a poor drifter. The song has personal notes for Blair- when he’s not comfortable telling people about his injury, he tells them his music comes from a ghost that has possessed him. Especially enjoyable here is Blair’s “ghostly mutterings” towards the end of the tune, which are even better in person as he contorts his face, all in good fun. With an obvious tone set, the music stretches its legs, ready to dance by Oh Angela!, the fifth song on the album. This is really where the Hookers shine live; James King’s bright trumpet leads the way as the band and the crowd enjoy a spirited participation- Blair sings “Oh Angela!” and the crowd shouts it back. Later everyone marvels at how a two-timing woman becomes the best reason they’ve had all year to dance.
With the jazz genre, a good band is paramount- there is nowhere to hide in this music. Luckily, adding to Blair’s talents (he plays guitar, piano, ukulele, accordion, banjo, and a mean cowbell) his supporting cast is anything but- the equally talented band share the stage and the hearts of the audience in a way that is rarely seen in modern music. King is fantastic on trumpet, and Norm Ficke, who plays sax and clarinet, shines on Lonesome Truth, with a pain-infused, plaintive solo which is memorized as easy as the lyrics. Though not often played at shows, a great instrumental piece, Hookers on the Rag, shows off the bass line, which bounces along and leads us on what can only be characterized as a riverboat hustle- if this was a dance, Travis Cottle (trombone) and Dustin Sargent (bass) would be the buxom woman’s hips dancing on the rails. Every band member performs multiple solos throughout every performance to wails from the women in the crowd, each one better than the last. Even the members sometimes forgotten in other bands shine here: Adam Hopkinson (drums), Matt Wauchope (keys) and Nathan Greene (keys and accordion) all contribute actively to the high quality of musicianship on display.
The 800lb. gorilla on the album is A Demon like Me, radio favorite and for good reason. Blair’s low, crooning whisper lets you know right away he’s up to no good; then again, when is a demon not? A nice swing beat is there, and maybe one of the first times many people will have heard an accordion done right. Add to that Blair’s noir piano, and the listener is smitten. So much so that by the time the tango beat makes its way in and Blair raises his voice, it’s too late- the switchblade is out and the demon’s breath is on their neck.
Two songs, March of the Hookers, the band’s theme song, and Waiting for the Band, a true classic waiting to happen, are too special. These songs really show the fullest capabilities thematically and stylistically for the band. Those will be left for the listener to discover, as any attempt to describe them would not be acceptable. All that can be said is that these songs set the band even further apart from any cohorts of theirs, and they know it.
February 4th marked Blair’s birthday. Other than the usual cake and burlesque show, it also was the debut of the band’s first-ever vinyl release, for their new hit State Hotel. It has a traditional New Orleans Jazz feel, with lots of banjo picking and bawdy blues. This song is also featured as their first professional music video, directed by Scott McKibben, and is a great visual representation of the band’s sound. In State Hotel Blair’s voice is really showcased, and for the first time we get a real clear picture of what he is capable of. After six months of listening to him, a distinct development is noticeable, and even the old tried and trues have been getting some TLC via new inflections, possibly since the material has gained familiarity with the band.
Don’t misunderstand- this is not kitsch. This is not parody nor does it poke fun at a by-gone era. Not within the last 20 or more years has this genre received such respect, integrity and added value as a whole. Case in point, the band has at least three covers they do every show: When the Saints Go Marching, Sweet Georgia Brown, and what else, but Georgia on My Mind: And this is not the National Anthem-gone-wrong type of cover everyone has come to expect of our most treasured songs; no, Blair slows it down and lets the song stand on its own, leaving only nostalgia in the air behind it. Even when the band ramps up the volume, playing their best for their homeland, the slow steady pace is only intensified by Blair’s passionate belting, honest and true. The crowd comes to some sort of peace and understanding, as can only happen when hearing homage paid to your land, and the whole place becomes a Diet Coke commercial as, even if for only a minute, everyone joins in the harmonious testimonial.
The Hookers can be found any given night around the southeast, gracing Atlanta as much as they can. For the best possible experience live, check them out at the Star Bar in Little 5 Points (3/26, 9:30PM), where the crowd will be excited and sing along. Enjoy the low, low cover charge and spend the extra on a round for the guys. They’ll appreciate it. And, by the end, maybe you’ll be a hooker, too.
Written by Nicole Banister