OAKLAND — The world got the hint that actress Zooey Deschanel could sing a Christmas standard when she belted out “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Elf. Over the course of two holiday-themed albums with M. Ward as She & Him, she’s nailed the point home. The duo, backed by a band, brought its select “Christmas Party” tour to the Fox Theater Thursday, prioritizing holidays covers—and others—above their own material for a night.
The inside of the Fox was adorned with festive decor for the evening, from Christmas trees at both wings of the stage to strings of lights and stockings hung from microphone stands, next to gift-wrapped boxes. Deschanel and Ward walked out together and opened with the slow-paced “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” a Mel Tormé cover. Ward’s bluesy, reverbed tones rang out softly, setting the mood for the evening. While it nearly got rowdy a couple of times, this was mostly a night to sit back and enjoy the music. The duo replaced the AM radio dial. The only thing missing was a cup of hot cocoa.
The red curtains opened to reveal the rest of the band, including two back-up singers. There were additional lit-up Christmas trees and a large screen behind them played video of a crackling fireplace. The group on stage didn’t change the pace for the first half of the show. The slow, jazzy cover of Andy Williams’ “Happy Holidays” was followed by Brian-Wilson-penned Beach Boys song, “Christmas Day,” which got a Laurel Canyon sound treatment. The duo would pay homage to Wilson again later with “God Only Knows” and also “Little Saint Nick,” on which Deschanel played her ukulele. The latter song also included a guest appearance by her boyfriend, Jonathan Scott of reality TV show “Property Brothers,” who snuck onto the stage to sing for a few seconds.
Over nearly two hours, She & Him covered the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Bruce Cockburn. Slower, wistful tunes like “A Marshmallow World” and “The Christmas Waltz” felt like an at-home performance rather than one in a large concert hall.
Ward fingerpicked melodies while Deschanel giggled in between singing her lines, and sometimes during them. Her velvety voice shone on songs like the organ-tinged “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Other tunes, like “The Coldest Night of the Year” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” were performed as a duet between her and Ward.
“Is it a good time to talk about consent?” she asked by way of introduction to the latter. “We’ll talk about it afterward.”
Ward’s muted-string guitar solo n the song was another show highlight.
On other songs, such as “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Winter Wonderland,” Deschanel harmonized with her backup singers.
While the majority of the set could be described as easy-listening, many of the songs had jazzy or bluesy flourishes. Sinatra’s “Christmas Memories,” got the latter treatment with its sparse instrumentation, while Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” was a piano-led fiery blues tune. Others would have fit onto a lounge stage. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams)” and “Sleigh Ride” stood out in that regard.
“There are a lot of colors in this song. So, if you’re 4, write them down,” Deschanel said before the band kicked into a rendition of Doye O’Dell’s “Blue Christmas,” the one miss for the night. The song would have been better if it got the fun doo-wop backing vocals of the famed Elvis Presley version.
Other highlights included original M. Ward-led track “Christmas Wish,” the loudest, fastest song of the first hour of the show, and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which allowed Deschanel to stretch out her pipes a bit. Following a fan-voted costume contest, during which no one had a chance to win as soon as two young sisters and their mom were led onto the stage, She & Him leisurely trotted through The Ronettes’ “I Can Hear Music” and Ward original “Magic Trick.”
A handful of She & Him tunes like “I Was Made for You” followed before the group finished up with more holiday classics.
Comedian Alice Wetterlund opened the show with a set of conversational jokes about the holidays, reproductive rights, healthcare, pets and pet healthcare. Her humor relied on timing and a demure delivery, kind of like comedian and actress Kristen Wiig.