Phone, Nicolay and their musically gifted collective known as The Foreign Exchange, including Zo!, Darien Brockington, and guest vocalist Chantae Cann, played B.B. King in New York City Saturday night and, as usual, did not disappoint. The show served as the official album release celebration for their third album, the excellent Authenticity.
As a Certified +FE Stan I looked forward to hearing live versions of their newest tracks, but remained curious in the days leading up to the show as to how the somber underbelly of Authenticity would merge with the happier Leave It All Behind and decidedly more hip-hop Connected material. It was made quickly evident, however, that there would be no palpable delineation between the songs they're most seasoned at performing (i.e. fan favorites "Take Off the Blues," "Come Around" and the GRAMMY-nominated "Daykeeper") and the future classics, which made for an organically cohesive show. The newest additions to their eclectic catalog merge extremely well with the older joints and pretty much solidify The Foreign Exchange "sound"--that achingly soulful, "grown folk relationship soundtrack" sound that resonates so deeply with those of us who've been through some real life shit.
Introduced by Philadelphia radio personality and TV One's Dyana Williams, who congratulated the collective on their success as independent artists, the members of +FE poured into their respective places on stage. In front of anticipatory mics and behind eager instruments, dressed in Authenticity t-shirts--Phonte and Nicolay clad in white and the rest black. Chris Boerner on guitar, Kush El-Amin on bass, and Tim Scott on drums rounded out the aforementioned. The show opened as the new album does, with the wistfully resolute "The Last Fall." It was already clear within those first few moments that the tone of this show would be slightly different than the last I attended while they were still in full-throttle promotional mode for Leave It All Behind.
Despite being so somber a song, "The Last Fall" electrified the crowd, and although Authenticity only came out a couple weeks ago, the die hards (read: most of the audience, including myself) were prepared to sing along. After an exuberant and appreciative (and hilariously, earnestly goofy) hello by leadman Phonte, the "love gone wrong" theme continued with "House of Cards" and the song "Authenticity." New artist and +FE member for the evening Chantae Cann stepped in on the former for the absent YahZarah who was performing on the Capital Jazz Fest Cruise. And of the title track, Phonte described it as "that shit you may not wanna hear but you need to hear"--a sentiment that carried over to the battle-weary "Fight For Love."
Three songs about betrayal and heartbreak in, and a rollcall was in order. Phonte asked the crowd how many were in love. A respectable smattering of claps and cheers served as a reply. "And how many here tonight have had their f*cking hearts ripped the f*ck out?" Cue: a full-bodied rumble of applause, for this was a likeminded crowd as eager for catharsis as the singer himself perhaps.
But it wasn't all furrowed brows and seriousness. +FE shows always have a generous measure of lightheartedness to them, and how can they not given the gleeful silliness that is Phonte? This show was the most toned down of any +FE show I've attended, but it didn't suffer for it, however. Although I dig the "Ooooh-wee! What's up with that? What's up with that?" skit from SNL that they often recreate, and their knack for making Gucci Mane and Drake covers palpable for the soul music heads, the stripped down and straight-forward, albeit still celebratory tone of the evening was an interesting juxtaposition to what I know of The Foreign Exchange live experience. "All Roads" and "I Wanna Know" received a winning acoustic treatment, for example. "We had to Jason Mraz that shit!" exclaimed the ever-comedic Phonte.
The special guests were also a treat. Of course the wild-maned Jesse Boykins III, dubbed "one of the leaders of the next generation of soul" by Phonte, was on hand to perform "If I Could Tell You No" from Zo!'s SunStorm and, of course, the brand new "Make Me a Fool," with a dab of "Tabloids" thrown in at the end for good measure. If you've ever seen Boykins perform it'll come as no surprise that the crowd ate it up. His energy is infectious. I can see why DJ Brainchild was so eager to put Phonte onto that man in the beginning of his career, a fact devulged during Jesse's intro. The hyphy, exuberant, and dimpled Big Pooh was also happily on hand to serve as surprise guest, joining his Little Brother mate on Zo!'s "This Could Be the Night" and "Nic's Groove," which got tricked out something serious with snippets of Kool & the Gang's "Get Down On It" and "Rock the Boat." Yes, the Aaliyah song.
Putting a new spin on the already familiar and already brilliant in that way is what makes an +FE live show so epic an experience, afterall. They have that in common with The Roots. There are moments that you can only witness during a live show, like Zo!'s extended Roger Troutman-esque vocoder outro during "Don't Wait," the harmonial scatting between Phonte, Chantae and Darien at the end of "Take off the Blues" or "Maybe She'll Dream of Me" turned full-out gospel extravaganza following Phonte's "When she's sitting in church, fallin asleep! Maybe she'll dream of me!" adlib. That song, for the record, is one of my favorites and such a jovial standout on the new album. It actually could've been right at home on Leave It All Behind, but it's a welcome break from the angst of Authenticity. The heads were definitely nodding to this one, the first single off the album we were celebrating.
I'll confess I spent a good majority of the show missing YahZarah. Yahz is such a standout with her flirtaciousness and her epic platform heels. But Chantae's sweet voice and fiery red afro had a presence as well. In fact, that "Laughing at Your Plans" was the last song performed only made us wait that much longer to hear how incredibly beautiful her voice is. She was clearly in her comfort zone here finally singing her own material to Nicolay's acoustic guitar assisted backdrop. I look forward to hearing more from this backup singer for India.Arie turned lead vocalist.
Phonte took a moment prior to the denoument to explain he and Nic's thought process during the creation of Authenticity, and it resonates enough to properly wrap up my review--that a good song can stand on it's own with just one instrument. Authentic, quality music doesn't need elaborate sampling, Auto-Tune "and kazoos and shit."
"I just hope our music has made y'all's lives better." Mission accomplished.