Before Abel Berihun Tesfaye, better known by his musical persona, the Weeknd, took the stage for last night’s show at New York’s airplane hangar-via-three-tiered-nightclub Terminal 5, his tight four-piece band jammed for two minutes or so. They were surrounded by six screens of various sizes, yet they all showed the same footage: a gorgeous woman wearing a blonde wig, grinning broadly and clapping enthusiastically, seemingly there without purpose. Seventy minutes later, after the concert ended, I understood the video’s purpose: she was showing us our eventual reaction to the Weeknd’s triumphant set, before we even knew what was in store.
It’s a story as old as time itself: Canadian singer puts out three songs on YouTube. Songs go viral, despite no one really knowing whom they were listening to or even what his name is. Singer releases an album, House of Balloons, on his website with no label backing. Singer’s album gets rave reviews from music critics and fans everywhere, and even tops many year-end best album lists. Singer is called “one of the greatest artists I’ve ever heard” by future-collaborator Drake. And so on. Happens all the time, right?
For Abel, pretty much. After unleashing Balloons to the grateful world in March 2011, he also released two other much-beloved mixtapes that year in Thursday and Echoes of Silence, all of which will be combined onto one remastered and remixed album, Trilogy (on Universal Republic Records), out next month. That’s what brought the Weeknd into town yesterday, for the first of three sold-out gigs.
Honestly, I had never thought of the Weeknd as being anything more than just Abel, despite knowing better — the claustrophobic R&B tracks on the trilogy are so exquisitely produced and intentionally frail that it always seemed to me that something so heavy as a single pound of a drum kit would shatter them, like an icicle falling from a roof and hitting the ground. Wisely, though, a no-longer-shy Abel reworked the songs slightly, amping up his confidence and their murky sexual intensity (and decreasing their occasionally sense of creepiness) through thickened arrangements, his falsetto voice still successfully crooning and cooing over the guitar and bass. To quote a woman next to me, “This is sexy as f*ck.”
Rather than inhabitant, say, a track like “Wicked Games,” which would require a closed-eyed performance in a darkened bedroom, Abel smartly “performed” it, as if it was a cover — he stepped out of the mindset that he was in when he wrote the track, and let it breathe a little more, giving it a friendlier vibe than the version that appears on House of Balloons. It was like that throughout his set, from “Outside” to a particularly buzzing rendition of “High for This” (his best song, IMHO), all of which were greeted with an equal amount of shrieks and catcalls from the predominantly teenage audience. That’s actually one of the things that impressed me most: no one song was treated differently, either better or worse, than any other. People weren’t there because they wanted to hear a hit single; they wanted to live an hour in the Weeknd’s presence, no matter what they played.
Abel’s a special one. And he’s only been in the game for less than two years.