There is nothing quite like an evening with The Foreign Exchange. It is part soulful introspection, part music for lovers, part hip-hop influenced mid-tempo grooves, part secular gospel church service, part relationship confessional, and part intelligent but hilarious comedy.
The show goes beyond the music, the songs, the lyrics, or even Phonte’s adlibs, which are alone worth the price of admission. It is the overall experience. The joy. The laughter. The smiles. All of which is created by the cohesiveness of The Foreign Exchange (FE).
I was surprised that the line to enter the Key Club wrapped around the door almost to an adjacent street. Once inside, the floor and standing room area behind it was packed with a diverse group of people ranging from slightly older hip-hop heads to soul music fans to hipsters. The crowded waited while listening to 1990s to early millennium hip-hop until Aimee Flint, FE’s Director of Operations, introduced the band.
FE started out the show with “The Last Fall” and “Authenticity,” for the excited crowd, which shifted into high energy by the time the group completed the mid-tempo grooves of “Fight For Love” and “House of Cards.” The former is a 21st century soulful soft-rock song, and one of my all time favorites. The band performed “Nic’s Groove,” and “Come Around,” for old die hard fans that have been with them since 2004’s hip-hop album, Connected. These two songs made heads nod and hands waive. They brought the newer fans back with “All or Nothing/Coming Home,” from 2008’s Leave It All Behind, which the excited the middle age lady behind me, and Black male/Mexican female couple to the side of me. All of us referenced the intro about getting kicked out of bed by your significant other, playing video games on the big TV, and sleeping on the couch.
FE gave several moments of lovers to dance (if there was room) or hold each other close by continuing with Phonte’s solo song, “Beautiful Night,” a haunting, but melodic and uncorny hip-hop ballad; then shifting into “Don’t Wait,” and “Take Off The Blues.” The latter song is a modern semi-electro stepper perfect for romance. In the middle of these songs was old school interpolation of old school classics like “Get Down On It,” and “Square Biz,” which kept the crowd energized.
The band downshifted to “Daykeeper,” then closed out the set with an extended version “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me,” from 2010’s Authenticity. The live version tonight included a gospel break down, and an interpolation of “What You Won’t Do For Love.”
But the key aspects of an FE show are not necessary in the songs or the musicianship, which are near flawless, it is in Phonte’s ad-libs. Phonte reminded us that a Moscato is a desert drink, while shouting out the audience, in the VIP (the “Moscato section”). He thanked all the fans for buying, or even downloading/stealing FE’s music. Then he reminded us, that “it takes money to run this shit,” and that FE is not a non-profit organization. Phonte discussed how he would love to form Phonte and the Tigallettes and take all of their money, so he could be like Kirk Franklin and make money while, “not having to do shit on the album” – but his morals get in the way. My favorite of the night was a musical discussion on how some people’s “e-life” in not the same as their real life, and that “titties and Jesus don’t go together.” The humor, interpolations, and varying the arrangement of songs kept the crowd, especially the people who were not as familiar with their material, engaged.
Having seen FE twice before, once with an encore and once without, I was unsure if they would do one. But I am sure the energy and buzz of the packed Key Club brought them back out. The encore started with “Laughing at Your Plans” and “I Wanna Know” sans the drums, the latter of which I used to hold my friend close, and sang a few lines in her ear. The mellow, almost unplugged feel of “I Wanna Know,” was the most romantic song of the night, just ahead of “Take Off the Blues.”
For some of the uninitiated, the highlight of the show was the last long extended beautifully interpreted, honest and humorous version of Mark Morrison’s mid 1990s R&B anthem, “Return of the Mack.” The original went Top Ten in 14 different countries. My friend turned around with a big smile on her face and said, “I love this song.” She would laugh, smile, and groove to the rest of the encore as FE and Phonte threw in a few verses of the Geto Boy’s “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and discussed everything from bill collectors to speaking like a mack to promoting FE merchandise all in the form of “Return of the Mack.” My friend said the song made her month.
My Friday consisted of driving from Long Beach to work in the East Suburbs, and then back to the Westside to pick up my friend, and then on to the FE show. I spent about four and a half in the car. At the end of the show, Phonte informed us that this was the last mini-leg of Foreign Exchange’s Authenticity Tour, which started in 2010 and it would be the last time these songs will be performed in their present order and arrangement. From the band to the background singers to Phonte, FE is something to behold live, probably the best value in entertainment out their in the soul/R&B/hip-hop arena, and they made me forget about half of my day in my Civic sitting at 5 miles an hour. In the end, it was a beautiful night; I just hope I didn’t waste it on a second date. Pause, if you’re feelin’ that.