Like any carnival, "Strange Fruit II: Inspire Me, Damnit" has its share of sideshow freaks.
Let's see. There's Madam CJ, who stops the show – literally – when she steps on stage, ass cheeks exposed, wearing a red lace lingerie getup with matching fishnets and garters to perform Vanity 6's "Nasty Girl." Then there's Ratsack, the HBO Def poet and co-host of the evening, who kicks off the show with a bug-eyed impersonation of Mr. Rogers, wearing a green sweater and sipping a martini.
Then, of course, you have the star of tonight's virtual solar system. "Rahbi has just entered the atmosphere," Madam CJ announces to the elbow-room-only crowd a little past 11 p.m. Saturday. "That's some shit they say at the Apache – the atmosphere, the ether."
It's not the only neo-soul cliché Rahbi and crew intend to flip on its head before the show's end. The theme he has cooked up, "Inspire Me, Damnit," allows him to pay homage to the influences he grew up on, while simultaneously challenging the status quo in a club that has played host to Atlanta's contemporary-soul scene for the better part of a decade. A slew of co-conspirators joins in on the vaudevillian act, including Trina Broussard, who sends up the Clark Sisters' gospel classic "You Brought the Sunshine," and Kimberly Nichole, who puts her foot in Tevin Campbell's "Can We Talk."
Dressed in a red Napoleonic colonel's jacket with tails and gold piping, Rahbi struts to the stage, with Mardi Gras beads dangling to his crotch, and stops along the way to kiss a female patron on the forehead.
He bursts into "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics and riffs a rap over the bridge, chiding those who lack originality: "Putting on a blazer singing 'bout some stars don't make you soul. Plus, come on, did we really think that never would get old?"
When his co-manager Rellish brings out a mirror and holds it up for Rahbi to primp, similar to the onstage bit Jerome and Morris Day of the Time perfected in the '80s, everyone eats it up. Funny how he uses blasts from the past to get his point across. That bit of irony seems lost on the cheering crowd.
He mixes the sanctified and the overly sexual – quoting the Bible and saying hello to his mother one minute, then humping a female audience member like a dog in heat the next – while singing a slower, sexier version of Prince's "When Doves Cry."
The climax comes at the end of his original song "Edge of My Life" as he acts out a lovers' triangle with two background singers. The ladies close in on each other and switch from fighters to lovers at Rahbi's behest before locking lips in a soft, lingering kiss. It's not quite how Britney and Madonna would do it, but it is the Apache, after all, not MTV.
To see more photos from Strange Fruit II, visit www.clcribnotes.com.