In its prime, Atlanta’s Opal Foxx Quartet threatened to serve as a one-band cure for terminal jadedness. After all, who could muster an “I’ve seen it all before” yawn when confronted with a ten-piece beatnik-jazz-cum-performance-art troupe fronted by a rail-thin drag queen who sang about anorexia and happened to be a vocal doppelgänger for Tom Waits? Not surprisingly, the Quartet had difficulty holding shape and disbanded in 1992, but not before recording enough material (much of it produced by Michael Stipe) to cobble together the posthumous The Love That Won’t Shut Up, released at a one-off reunion show on New Year’s Eve ’93. (Thoughts of further gigs were erased when drummer Allen Page died in early ’94.) While Opal himself is clearly the featured attraction — just check out the mind-boggling medley of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Strange Fruit” for proof — the canvas of steel guitar, cello and reeds is plenty beguiling on its own.
After the Quartet, Opal shed the dresses and the alias, returning to life as Benjamin (he was born Robert Curtis Dickerson) and shaping a more manageable quintet — albeit one with some returning members and a similar flavor. Smoke’s Heaven on a Popsicle Stick ventures into territory as varied as Balkan folk (“Hole”) and sports-bar blues (“Hank Aaron”) while keeping one foot grounded in Twin Peaks-style swing. That general sense of discombobulation — aided by both Brian Halloran’s rolling cello bowing and Benjamin’s fetishistic lyrical penchant (“Luke’s Feet” waxes poetic about a certain 90210 star’s, er, appendages) — gives this Heaven a decidedly Dali-esque tone.
As the bleak title indicates, the follow-up is an altogether darker affair. Colored by the muted cornet playing of Bill Taft (a former member of the Jody Grind who also served in Opal Foxx), Another Reason to Fast finds Benjamin waxing wounded about boyfriends lost, benders undertaken and other similar topics. His voice, grown even more gravelly with the passage of time and the consumption of unfiltered smokes, raises dissipation to an apex worthy of the most elegantly wasted cabaret diva. Sure to leave you shaken and stirred.
Benjamin, a PWA who died in January 1999 of cirrhosis, is the subject of Benjamin Smoke, an acclaimed 2000 theatrical documentary.