The Foreign Exchange is the Postal Service of soul music: an up-and-coming producer joins a lead vocalist on a side project that is completed in true 21st century fashion, without sitting down in a studio to collaborate. Both projects have spawned albums that are modern classics. Both even chose tongue-in-cheek monikers that allude to the manner of their genesis. But while Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello are on hiatus, the pairing of Phonte and Nicolay is going strong.
Last Sunday, the Foreign Exchange family brought their transcontinental soul sound to a packed house at the Black Cat. Many live performers, especially in support of albums with a host of guests, suffer when they try to recreate the record, sans featured players. The Foreign Exchange is having none of it, bringing vocalists YahZarah, Darien Brockington, and Carlita Durand and backing three-piece Zo! and the Els along for the ride. And not just any ride, but a singular experience: part concert, part musical therapy, part church revival, all designed to make the audience – as the album instructs – leave it all behind.
From the time the eight performers take the stage, the women in jaw-dropping ensembles and the men in their Sunday best, one thing is clear: Phonte is an MC in the purest sense. It’s his world, and the audience is just living in it. Due to his work as part of Little Brother, his rap skills have never been in question, and his singing voice, prominently featured on Leave It All Behind, is more than capable. But what really impressed was his ability to orchestrate the concert, unafraid to step back and shine the spotlight on someone else in service of song and show. Totally at ease on the mic, Phonte freely mixes stand-up comedy and relationship advice; the crowd could share a laugh or an “Amen!” in between bouts of musical rapture.
Leave It All Behind is a melancholy album, perfect for contemplating relationships during the fall rain. Nicolay’s beats are more trip-hop than hip-hop, taking a backseat to round basslines, jazzy piano melodies, and swelling synths. Live, the songs take on a whole new dimension, as the locked-in rhythms, four-part harmonies, and dueling keyboards wash over the audience. The music is full and powerful without losing the poignancy or complexity of the album – no small feat.
Phonte’s workmanlike vocals are a thread throughout the evening, but YahZarah “the Man-eater” and Darien “Panty Dropper” Brockington live up to their Phonte-bestowed nicknames, treating the audience to smooth, sexy lead vocals. Carlita Durand wasn’t given the opportunity to stand-out, but four voices are better than three here. And the band members are true professionals, keeping the groove going during Phonte’s “Top 7 ‘Give Me Your Love’ Countdown” (his elaborate introductions of the performers) and effortlessly shifting between R&B and bossa nova styles throughout the set.
Like the best front men, Phonte is fearless on stage, doing his best Bobby Brown on a cover of “My Prerogative,” reading a grocery list as a mid-90s reggae toaster, and rocking a radio rap medley in neo-soul style. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Turn My Swag On,” “Make Tha Trap Say Aye,” “Stanky Leg,” and “LOL Smiley Face,” as performed by the Foreign Exchange. His banter rivaled anything from last weekend’s Bentzen Ball, especially his explanation of how the refrain of “I Wanna Know” (“Okay!”) can save a relationship.
For two hours, Preacher Phonte led his flock of Foreign Exchange fans through the valley for an evening intended to rejuvenate, whether by singing, dancing, laughing, or crying. If you haven’t seen Foreign Exchange live, do your soul the favor.