There's no questioning how rich in soul music history we are in the state of Ohio. 20 years ago, an Ohioan would
never need to go far to find some live soul music goin' down nearby. In 2010, it's a different story. Cleveland
gets theirs, no question...but to see a surge of R&B artists making their way down the road to Akron the last
couple of years has been bliss.
Saturday night, the city was blessed with it's first appearance by the Grammy-nominated Foreign Exchange. Having
not seen them before live, I had no idea what a treat we were all in for.
First, it should be said that FE truly puts on a "show" in the traditional sense of the word. Whereas so many
artists these days bring their egos out on stage in hopes of being taken "seriously", The Foreign Exchange clearly
comes out to CONNECT with their audience. There's a significant difference between "ego" and "swag", and the
difference is never any more clear then when lead singer Phonte steps on stage.
With the "LE's" (including producer extraordinaire Zo! on keys) holdin' it down from the ground up, the group
delivered solid versions of most of the cuts from their most recent album, "Leave It All Behind". Being sure to
satisfy their most loyal, they did dip into 2004's "Connected" a time or two as well.
Phonte perfectly embodies the sense of humor and "showmanship" that the band portrays live, leading the group in
and out of some comic musical vignettes between songs. At one point, he claimed to be toning things down due to
the presence of a few somewhat younger audience members...but if he hadn't playfully jabbed at me for bringing them
(now you know!), I doubt anyone would have noticed any such adjustment. These guys were there to put on a show,
and they did so in first-class fashion.
Co-lead vocalists YahZarah and Darien Brockington are equally as playful on the stage. At one point, they were
literally doing the "Kid n Play" dance behind Phonte's antics (quite well, I might add). But let it be known that
each of them truly go all in when it's their turn to take center stage. Both of them have incredible vocal skills
that will pierce you deep should you have the chance to hear them in person.
FE manages to pull off an amazing feat. They're able to demonstrate SERIOUS musicianship without taking themselves
too, well, SERIOUS. As rarely as this is achieved in today's "style over substance" music market, the secret
ingredient is all too evident when you see them live. Quite simply, these cats truly love what they do. In 25
plus years of attending soul and R&B shows, I'd be hard-pressed to point to someone who so clearly loves performing
music more than bandleader Nicolay. He took the stage with a glow in his eye, sat down at his rig, and just took off like a
jet plane. He played and swayed all night long, never once giving the impression that he was "working".
Let's face it...these guys would be bigger than chocolate if today's mainstream music business wasn't the hot mess
that it is. The fact that these guys can make the brand of TRUE R&B/soul music that they do and still manage to
get on mainstream's radar and garner a Grammy nomination is an absolute testament to the love they have for their
craft. Should The Foreign Exchange turn up at a town near you, and you want to remember what REAL music is all
about (or perhaps enlighten someone not old enough to know, as I did), DON'T SLEEP!