For all of American music’s collective dynamism, how many artists truly celebrate that diversity with their sounds? What would that even look like?
Helado Negro, a musical project led since 2009 by South Florida native Robert Carlos Lange, is one of the few endeavors to take up such a task. Earning a number of grants and awards bestowed upon him by various organizations, Lange became prolific in the past decade, imbuing a cross-culturalism into an inventive, revolutionary take on experimental/avant-pop and digital folk — with the words of his songs often spoken in two languages.
Roberto made an anticipated stop at 9:30 Club recently as part of his current tour in support of Far In, his 2021 studio album released on 4AD.
Helado, as he’s come to be known, was around the block casually hanging out with fans, then talking to some of them right outside the front door and then at the merch table before he’d begin what became a hypnotic, articulate evening of music showcasing his amazing vision and pulled from across his captivating catalogue now consisting of eight studio albums, a live recording and a series of EPs.
Stream Helado Negro’s 2021 4AD Records studio release, Far In, via Spotify:
To casually start the DC show on May 4, Helado nonchalantly strolled out onto a spacious stage, where he positioned himself momentarily behind a simple microphone with a narrow stand to his right. On top of it was what looked like a Roland JX-08 Polyphonic Synthesizer, and with a simple button push or a dial turn, he’d use it to help create his own unique sound space and, within it, a mood of sheer delight and a much-needed departure from the everyday presentation of live music.
With the lights spinning through the color wheel and setting him aglow, Helado would mosey and bop around the stage with an inexplicably charming presence, his hair in a festive puff, and his vocals lush and resounding, as every song would impressive with its overall elegance and attentive frequency. Folks would hoot and whistle at him in approval, and he’d reveal the biggest grin before moving into the next section of each song. His lovable, lighthearted nature tickled a relaxed crowd from the get-go.
He greeted it, first in English, then in Spanish, and that gesture alone said so much about this thoughtful fellow and his unconventional path to headlining such a venue. The son of Ecuadorian immigrants, he studied computer art and sound design, which clearly has given him a uniquely informed perspective on his craft.
Helado — a Fender Stratocaster in hand — began the night with “Wake Up Tomorrow,” the dreamy, buoyant kindling from his new album, and it served as a greeting to those who’d helped fill out the room just as he was finding a rhythm on the stage.
“Purple Tones,” also from Far In, registered as a magical, drifting number with an unconventional groove, and a distant chorus that at 9:30 Club heard his tender resonance swing from deep and tempting to elated and enchanted: “And breathe / ‘Cause all I care about is you / And all I care about is you.”
He walked over in between songs and asked a member of the audience “what’s your assignment?” Even if hypothetical, it made everyone ask themselves the same question.
Helado was supported by Andy Stack, a Baltimore-based musician and phenomenal composer in his own right who’s nationally recognized for his work as one of half of Wye Oak and via his own outfit, Joyero. Stack was upstage right and manned a Fender bass, helping create the transportive groove in kaleidoscopic tracks like “Gemini and Leo” and he’d utilize at least one different hand-held instrument throughout the evening.
Drummer Pinson Chanselle, another in-demand musician, was a machine, and his eyes were glaring and intense from behind a mask. He was even deeper than Stack, upstage left, and the co-founder of Spacebomb Records provided the pensive marching to open the tingling “Hometown Dream,” and later fueled numerous concurrent beats to drive the provocative shimmy in “Outside the Outside.”
Watch the official music video for Helado Negro’s newsest single, “Ya no estoy aquí,” via his YouTube channel:
Helado, when not adjusting the synthesizer or using his guitar, had ample room to roam with the gap left at the front of the stage, and no matter where he was on the platform, his voice was otherworldly, alluring and perhaps at its most beautiful on tracks like an adventurous, sweeping “Aureole” along with the breathtaking and unlimited “Agosto.”
Shifting between English and Spanish, he pointed out that it was his first to the nation’s capital since 2019, which he added made “it real special.”
He recalled getting on a bus back to New York City, his current home, and how much has changed since his last time in DC.
“It’s kind of wild to be here now, so thank you for being with us,” said Helado, who made a massive splash in 2017 with his NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.
Watch Helado Negro’s recent performance on Live on KEXP via YouTube:
With the set of wholly original offerings at 9:30 Club being pulled entirely from the new album, it only supported the notion that his newest album could very well be one of his finest works to date and his first released via 4AD Records. With the humble assistance of Stack and Chanselle, the loose and limber Helado created his own convincing realm and within it a cathartic experience for those who were wise enough to be there, many of whom called to him from the floor like they’d known him for years.
Helado illuminated the essence of his songwriting approach in sharing insight prior to the track “Telescope.”
“I wrote this next song for my mom,” he said, to an emotional response. “It was when I was reflecting a lot on this moment I remember having when we were in lockdown.”
He described the time as a period of relatives and friends “staring at each other through flat screens and surfaces … shapes and colors, and not a lot of depth,” and “this song just appeared.”
The eternally pleasing “Thank You For Ever” and the juicy, explorative “La Naranja” closed out this therapeutic collection of songs that could be considered out of the ordinary even for the likes of 9:30 Club, one of the busiest and most eclectic venues in the land.
Returning to encore, Helado ultimately shared a few tracks not recorded on his latest record, a trio, in fact. It started with “Pais Nublado”, a mysterious piece from his 2019 album This Is How You Smile, and it continued with “Running,” a circular, intoxicating song and perhaps his most popular to date judging by its monstrous stream counts.
Stream Helado Negro’s 2019 studio album, This Is How You Smile, via Spotify:
And in keeping current, Helado closed with his first release of 2022, a single entitled “Ya no estoy aquí” and yet another example of this man’s expansive and vibrant faculty for making powerful music. The colors again lit up behind him as he lifted both his arms in bidding farewell, and his voice organically found its place within this deliberately textured, subtly rich composition — the title of which translates to “I’m no longer here.”
Appearing on the floor within a few minutes of the finale, interacting and posing for photos with fans, Roberto showed he’s not just a trailblazing artist with an unmatched approach to song making, but a deeply caring human and blue-collar individual who relishes in the pleasure and fulfillment his listeners draw from his culturally varied, exhilarating music.
Wake Up Tomorrow
Gemini and Leo
There Must Be A Song Like You
Outside The Outside
Thank You For Ever
Ya No Estoy Aqui
Here are images of Helado Negro along with the evening’s opening act, Slauson Malone, performing at 9:30 Club the night of May 4. 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.