I first heard of The Foreign Exchange from Garth Trinidad’s show on KCRW. He was playing a track from a Mushroom Jazz CD called “Nic’s Groove.” I was drawn to the groovy blend of hip-hop, R&B, with a touch of house, and wanted to hear more. So I picked up not one but two copies of their debut album Connected — the original CD and the equally impressive instrumental-only version — and became a fan.

These discs and the band’s recent follow-up, Leave It All Behind, deftly blend so many sounds that I had no idea what their live show would look or feel like.

Led by North Carolina rapper Phonte with groundbreaking production from Dutch trip-hop producer Nicolay – the duo made Connected swapping vocals and beats over the Internet — this is a band that simply doesn’t draw between the lines.

So when I saw they would be playing at The Sunset Strip’s legendary Roxy Theatre on June 14, I decided to see and hear for myself. And I’m glad I did. Because as accomplished as The Foreign Exchange’s recordings are, I would not have guessed that in concert they would be such a crowd-pleasing, smile-inducing, feel good time.

With Phonte’s sense of showmanship as MC and the night’s ringleader and Nicolay on keyboards, the live show fused blues, sweet, uplifting soul, and vocals ranging from silky smooth to East Coast rap. A great new band with an original sound delivering its message via an old-time rhythm and blues review that had everyone on their feet, joining in the celebration.

Accompanied by vocalists YahZarah, Darien Brockington and Muhsinah, Phonte spoke, rapped and sang about the trials and tribulations of love, as well as more ephemeral pleasures. The audience was in it and celebrating from the beginning, and I had a big smile plastered on my face the entire time.

Love songs like “House of Cards” and “Sweeter Than You” led to the band’s newest hit, “Sincere,” and the set concluded with breakthrough song “Come Around.” Encores included “Written All Over Your Face” and, finally, a rousing cover of Level 42’s “Something About You,” which closed the night with the audience joining in and singing along.

A truly uplifting evening in the great tradition of classic soul music — somewhat in contrast to the darker tones of Leave It All Behind, but perfectly in character to the underlying sweetness of the band’s lyrics. And another testimony to the versatility and range of the talent showcased at The Roxy Theatre.

 

–David Loomstein 

Photo courtesy of Kris Perry www.myspace.com/krisperryphotography