The Foreign Exchange
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015

Dance, funk, soul, electronic, house, R&B: However you want to label The Foreign Exchange, they embraced it all during a groove-focused show at Cat’s Cradle Saturday night.

Though at its core the act is the duo of frontman Phonte Coleman and producer Nicolay Rook, the group’s sound has shifted and grown stronger through collaboration with other, like-minded artists. Vocalists Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden add depth to the vocal attack, while keyboardist Zo!, bassist Darion Alexander and drummer Nick Baglio bring serious chops to the rhythm section.

Those skills were apparent when the group delivered an impressive opening set during a Floetry reunion show at DPAC over the summer, but the weekend’s headlining slot (and as a result, extra time) provided extra opportunities to flex. That became clear during several seamless transitions near the beginning of the show as they tied together older tracks, a cover of Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her” and several cuts off their sixth and most recent full-length, Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey.

The culmination was an extended jam on the Milk and Honey lead single “Asking for a Friend,” a slightly polarizing, albeit hilarious and infectious dance track. The live setting allows Phonte to showcase his innate sense of humor, both through the song’s already-goofy verses and off-the-cuff ad libs. More important, the rhythm section got their chance to move beyond transitions and into straight-up jam territory with heavy grooves.

“That’s how the fuck it’s supposed to be going down,” Phonte exclaimed at the conclusion of the extended “Asking for a Friend.” He then reminisced on the group’s connection to the Cradle, noting that they did a show there a decade ago “and they were only like 20 people here.” Humble as always, he made sure to point out that those 20 people included the people at the door and tending the bar.

But on Saturday night? No, Cat’s Cradle was brimming with fans, many of them paired up, holding each other close during tracks like “Sincere” and “Truce.” Those hugs became less stationary as the night went on, particularly during what was a nearly 10-track medley anchored by “The Secret,” a track off Nicolay’s latest solo project, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto.

The refrain of “Just keep dancing, don’t you stop/And I’ma take it way up to the top/‘cause I want you, baby” continued popping up amid either teases or full-on takes of earlier singles including “Daykeeper,” “Don’t Wait” and “Take Off the Blues.” They even worked in a cover of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” before ramping up the energy with their own “Body” and a take on George Kranz’s 1983 dance track, “Din Daa Daa.”

Covers can be a tricky case for live acts. For one, they can go completely over the audience’s head and lose them for several minutes. Or they can provide the band with another opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. For the The Foreign Exchange, it’s always been the latter, and that was no more obvious than when the act ended the show with a send-up of Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.”

In Phonte’s hands, the track became musical comedy. And it’s his down-to-earth humor—and truly, his life outlook—that has long made his work so potent and relatable. Along with Nicolay, you got the feeling Phonte had never been happier. During the set, neither had we.