Helado Negro with High Cube at the McColl Center

In a room glowing in yellow and pink, with touches of wet mulch brown and periwinkle blue (an installation by the artist Leah Rosenberg), a crowd gathered. Stylish people, the sort who know where to go in Uptown on a Saturday night, chatted while sipping from bottles of Sam Adams and casting shadows on the palette around them. The equipment was there, a series of magic boxes linked together with a jumble of life support cords. Something magical was about to happen.

The opener was High Cube, a trio of techno-savants and rhythmic racers from Charlotte. Vocals over a synth fog brought the audience in like a marble through the hole in a wooden labyrinth. Meanwhile, percussive beats pecked away at the time like a woodpecker. The vocalist had that sandy sound like the 80s heartthrobs that were blasted to superstardom like Push Pop out of their plastic tubes. Waves of minimalist, ambient, animalistic sound floated up to the gleaming white pipes traversing the ceiling. The vocals were delivered meticulously, and the synth had a comforting consistency like painted lines on the highway with a beat like birds on a morning you decide to sleep in. Melody skeined like yarn around a pair of hands, and the sound grew, evolved, and shrunk. There they were, poets of sound, manipulators of the waves that we live among, playing a song called “Accident Prone” and in the process, creating the most delicious sound-tonality combo, then adding vocals that made the Postal Service so enticing. The sound stretched and took over like kudzu, altering the environment with its presence. I bet these guys appreciate the sound of trains.

Then Roberto Lange, a.k.a. Helado Negro, took the stage. Dressed in black and his Young Latin & Proud t-shirt, the excitement surrounding the performance he was about to give was as potent as the LED lights wired to his sound. As he tuned and turned on the audience with “Ojos Que No Ven,” Roberto seemed to be passing to another dimension. The sound filled the room to a point where it seemed that nothing else would fit. Then, like a checkout line magician easily fitting the final items in an already full bag, he opened his mouth and the space expanded and waves of sound elasticized the walls. It was the first song of his set and it was wild, powerful, and intimate.

The beat of “Relatives” was infectious like a yawn and the sort of pleasure that you have no choice but to submit yourself to when properly eating ice cream. We, the audience, were at his whim. Then, Roberto rocked “Come Be Me” in the small space. He played with the energy of the crowd like a photographer toys with light. In “Dance Ghost” he took his voice like a caramel swirl from the throat to the mouth to fry to a gasp. Meanwhile, the tinsel mammals swayed and shrunk and grew, nebulous creatures of energy and light. The beat carried on like breathing and the crowd glowed in adoration. “Runaround” was bouncing and lovely, like candlelight in the dark with a special friend. Roberto admitted that he couldn’t help but have a “crazy grin” on his face when looking at the faces of the people who had come to see him. His eyes, less than two yards away, held kindness, love, and a passion restrained within the confines of melody.

For “Young, Latin and Proud” he picked up a guitar. His articulation of the syllables in the word Latin popped like a ripe tomato, squirting juice and seeds over the audience’s auditory systems. Roberto sang as if he never wanted the song to end, smoothing his voice more and more, letting it soften and settle over the exultant crowd. His vocals in “Transmission Listen” bounded through the soundscape, tethered to earth by the guitar at his hips. Through “Mi Mano” and beyond he moved around the stage with the grace and omniscience of a well-toured performer, lithely stepping over the cables crisscrossing his path.

The show continued, Roberto’s resonance a dream, to be transformed by the heavier beat of “Junes,” for which Roberto served up a synth break like a hot dog under a mountain of condiments. He played a solo he wrote just for us, he said, and produced the sonic equivalent of the aerial scene at the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. He seemed to gain power from “It’s My Brown Skin,” which he expelled back at the crowd like a silver screen it-boy who’s found his groove on the red carpet. I wonder if Helado Negro owns a tuxedo.

Roberto announced the nearing of the end of the show and performed a song that was both heavy and bright. Singing through half-lidded eyes, he seemed to be communing with the spirits. He sang and the mounted LEDs beside him flickered colorfully with each syllable. Then the sound stopped and the crowd, hungry for a sweet little something after such as fortifying show, struck up a chant: Otra! Otra! Otra!

A nice guy like Roberto couldn’t say no, and besides, it was appreciated that the request was made in Spanish. And so, following consultation with the tinsel mammals, he played “2º Día,” singing and beaming, cycling through the notes and playing with the resonance of the sound. No matter what Helado Negro did, it sounded like a dream to the audience – and appeared to feel like one for performer.

This was Helado Negro’s final show of 2017, but with the momentum he has from last year’s release, Private Energy, 2018 is bound to bring more good juju Roberto’s way. I can’t wait until he’s back in town.

Gwendolyn Lewis Written by: