When the GRAMMY-nominated Foreign Exchange perform live, it’s more than a concert — it’s a family reunion.
I stood backstage with my arms crossed over my chest and hands connected to band members on either side of me. As I stared down at my Authenticity T-shirt, Phonte delivered a spirit-stirring prayer thanking God for a receptive crowd, tight musicianship and flawless voices. I glanced over at Sy Smith and Jeanne Jolly — two incredible songstresses who softened the blows of Phonte’s bragaddocio hip hop delivery. My eyes travelled towards Nicolay, one of the most humble and talented producers I’ve ever known, as he bowed in concentration.
The remaining contributors to the collective, Zo! (keys), Chris Boerner (lead guitar), Tim Scott Jr. (drums) and Darion Alexander (bass) put down their jokes and smartphones to enter this zone of creative synergy that surged from one hand to the other. It was showtime at the Key Club in Hollywood, CA - and The Foreign Exchange approached the stage to deliver one of the last performances of their Authenticity tour. It was poised to be one of their best.
The show jumped off with their signature panoramic, stereo bass sound that swooshed from left to right speakers. The eager L.A. crowd roared with each band member’s entrance; reaching an apex when Phonte trotted onstage and grabbed the mic. Tim maintained the pulse of the band as they took the crowd on a journey through “The Last Fall,” the first song from the Authenticity LP. With hearts pumping, Phonte lead the crowd through their more prominent selections from the Authenticity and Leave it All Behind LPs. The crowd sang along to “House of Cards” and “Fight for Love” before swaying to the poignant lyrics of Authencity’s title track.
After delving into “Greater Than the Sun” a smoothed-out track from Zo!’s Sunstorm album, the eclectic crowd went ballistic when the band took it back to 2004 and dropped “Come Around” from The Foreign Exchange’s inaugural Connected LP. Phonte managed to weave in a joke or two between songs, often reflecting on life and love in which resonated with the crowd.
While most of the songs were from their recent album, the audience’s outbursts, sweat and cheers mostly came during their throwback performances. Sy Smith’s “Greatest Weapon” serenaded empowerment while “Take Off the Blues” had the City of Angels two-stepping like they were Chicago natives.
The banter between Phonte, Sy and Jeanne was both entertaining and inspiring as the North Carolina native often preached his way from song to song with encouragement from his female counterparts. His call and response approach to engaging the crowd baptized several races, cultures, colors, ages and socioeconomic positions into one body of soul music lovers. As he expounded on the state of internet dating and social media — we quickly learned that “breasts and Jesus don’t mix.”
The climax came during the beginning of their GRAMMY-nominated song, “Daykeeper.” Despite being such an alluring composition, the crowd went ballistic. This song combines Nicolay’s chord progression with Phonte’s solemn delivery while Sy and Jeanne counteracted his solace with operatic urgency.
Phonte may be the frontman of the group, but Sy and Jeanne shined equally with solo performances of their own. Jeanne Jolly’s acoustically angelic “Steal Away” was just the cool down we needed after nearly two hours of bouncing to every beat.
I have seen The Foreign Exchange perform several times in various cities and this was, by far, the best I’d ever seen them. Phonte’s vocals were strong, the syncopation of the band was like a well oiled machine and the ladies carried their ranges of alto and soprano effortlessly. It was serious business, but not so stiff that we all couldn’t have fun. The energy stayed remarkably high and they fulfilled their purpose: to forget about the problems of the day and vibe with this dazzling display of beats, melodies, soulful voices, relevant rhymes and (of course) comic relief.