by Eric Tullis
D.C. emcee Wale sprinted past me on the way to his tour bus immediately following his performance Thursday night at Cat’s Cradle during the opening night of Signal's big four-day weekend. For much of the festival, I followed suit, sprinting up and down Franklin Street, trying to catch as many acts as possible at the festival, all the while rushing to get into certain near-capacity spots like Vespa, where the fire marshals were playing gatekeeper.
Friday night, though, at Cat’s Cradle, I stayed put to see Phonte and Nicolay bring their second LP as The Foreign Exchange, Leave It All Behind, back to N.C. for a homecoming show. It would be the first time that they’ve officially performed in N.C., aside from a show at UNC late last year. Accompanying them would be the band Zo! & The ELs and all of the guests from LIAB—all except for Muhsinah, the album’s female vocal standout and the voice that gave "Daykeeper," its first single such dreamy appeal.
There’s something heartening about the Triangle being able to boast of a legitimate R&B outfit and show up in some of its best cocktail attire to support it. As a black person that has lived in the area for several years and witnessed the various trends and scenes which have mainly catered to the young, black, educated and professional crowd, having a group like The Exchange to support and bring that crowd together does more for the scene and the cultural aesthetic than many might admit. All of the laughably attended spoken-word events, annual MEAC mixers and “grown and sexy” parties don’t compare to showing up every so often to hear some of your hometown heroes and world-recognized artists sing their hearts out for you.
And let's be serious: It was refreshing to finally attend something associated with Phonte Coleman and not have to wade my way through a lake of sweaty dudes with Justus League hard-ons, who only came to hear Phonte and Pooh do songs off of The Listening or see Joe Scudda show off his new clothes. (Speaking of which: Scudda was in the building, though he didn't come onstage to perform “Raw Life." Letdown.)
Durham vocalist Carlitta Durand opened for The Foreign Exchange, performing several songs from her new mixtape. Coleman later announced that Durand had finally taken the step that every aspiring artist takes when they put in their two-week notice and quit their job to focus full-time on their music career. The set was solid, and that's it. The songs sounded good, and the well-appointed crowd was thankful. I really don’t know what unpredictable thing I was expecting to happen Friday night to really set it on fire, but things went generally as planned: Would, Yahzarah—in all of her perfect-framed splendor—actually self-ignite? Would a screaming Darien Brockington fan pass out and succumb to a heart attack after D. Brock belted into one of his soulful, vocal runs females have grown to die for? What if a pillow fight suddenly broke out in the middle of the crowd? All right, maybe a pillow fight is a little to rambunctious for an R&B show, and it never happened...
Believe it or not, though, on the following night at the Kid Koala show (also at the Cradle for Signal), two attendees did, in fact, have a 5-minute pillow throw-down. After the audience spread out and formed a circle , he two fighters stepped in the cipher with one pillow each. They started knocking each other silly. In the end, a young brunette ended up pummeling her male contestant. All the while, another volunteer from the crowd stood on stage, behind the turntables with Koala, providing the sound effects for the fight with a sampler provided by Koala. All of this was what he described as his “encore”.
Before all of that, Koala embarked on an hour-long expedition, orchestrating his own rhythm-section marathon of his Ninja Tune release Your Mom’s Favorite DJ. Armed with three turntables and large projection screens flanking both sides, he wowed the crowed with each of his tricks and manipulations. Koala welded together patches of music to create complete instrumental songs that some producers probably couldn’t do even if you gave them a demo button on a keyboard. After a fan from the crowd randomly yelled out the name of Koala’s band (he goes by Eric Sans when recording with his band, Bullfrog), he sarcastically replied to the crowd: “Hey, how ’bout we all shout out the names of random amphibians?" Yeah, that and pillow-fight, why don't we? Set of the festival?