The Weeknd At Mod Club in Toronto on Sunday
"For a first show? I've never seen anything like this," muttered one of the many gobsmacked concertgoers at the first-ever performance by enigmatic avant-R&B act the Weeknd, also known as 20-year-old Torontonian Abel Tesfaye. Of course, the dude saying this in the bottle-service section of the Mod Club works for Diddy's iconic rap label Bad Boy and was there alongside an apparent army of New York record label reps desperate to land this unsigned sensation, an even more unlikely scenario for a debut gig.
Despite the hype that threatened to overwhelm the Weeknd's coming-out party - announced just 10 days in advance, it sold out in 90 minutes, with scalpers getting up to $300 and hundreds arriving hours early - the Weeknd met and at times transcended the show's historic advance billing. (It also operated as a high-intensity rehearsal before The Weeknd play before thousands at Drake's annual OVO Festival at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre on Sunday).
If there was any remaining doubt that the old music industry rules no longer applied, then Sunday's Weeknd show laid that to rest. After self-releasing the free online album House of Balloons, a well-timed tweet by Drake sent the Weeknd soaring into the pop-cultural stratosphere. He landed on the coveted Polaris Prize shortlist, a first for a free download, received raves from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone and his single High For This is sound-tracking HBO's ad campaign for Entourage.
Much like Drake, cheering him on from the VIP section, the Weeknd erupted from obscurity by eschewing club bangers for melancholy mood music and left-field samples like punk icons Siouxsie and the Banshees and indie heroes Beach House. Ground zero for their narcotic, nocturnal sound is Kanye West's auto-tuned epic 808s and Heartbreak, but Tesfaye surpasses his source material thanks to his dry-ice falsetto and disquietingly sexual lyricism.
To transition into the live arena, he assembled a band - including Drake's guitarist, who closed the set with an epic November Rain-style solo - to re-imagine the dark, electronic beatscapes of his production team, Doc McKinney and Illangelo, as a real-live rock show, albeit one still infused by Portishead-era trip-hop and post-millennial dubstep. But the real revelation was Tesfaye's vocals, which proved even stronger onstage as he threw some Idol-ready runs into his tales of late-night, broken-hearted, drug-addled hookups.
Tesfaye seemed a bit nervous - not surprising for an artist who initially kept his name a secret, and even now banned cameras from the show. Though finally front and centre, he wore a camouflage jacket and remained strikingly still as if to be as unobtrusive as possible. Still, he confidently opened with High for This, causing the lit-fuse crowd to go off. At times he seemed taken aback by the reception, standing there, mike in both hands, staring out as the crowd sang his words back to him. It was an emotional night, and that came through in his voice, whether weaving through slow jams like The Party and the After Party or (relatively) upbeat romps like House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.
During Wicked Games, the show's epic peak, arms raising unironic lighters filled the air as his emotion-ravaged voice crooned "Bring your love baby/I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby/I can bring my pain" amidst a roiling rhythm and grinding guitar. The sing-alongs turned his abject loneliness into a communal catharsis. But the edge remained, be it the unrelenting dirtiness of Loft Music or the encore cut The Birds (Part 1) which used martial drums and strobe lights to amplify the implied threat: "Don't make me make you fall in love."
On new song Rolling Stone, Tesfaye sings "Baby I got you/Until you're used to my face/And my mystery fades" which could've been his career epitaph if he'd faltered here. Until now, the Weeknd has existed as almost a figment of our collective imaginations, his ascent fuelled by anonymity, his communications coming via Twitter and Tumblr, his music existing only as web-distributed ones and zeroes. He could've dissipated like a dotcom bubble. But by bringing his aching digi-laments out of the Internet's shadows and onto the stage, Tesfaye triumphantly proved that the Weeknd has no end in sight.
Special to The Globe and Mail