At a sold-out Commodore, the Weeknd proves worthy of his confident antihype
At the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday, May 12
Abel Tesfaye doesn't want you to read this review. The Toronto-based singer known professionally as the Weeknd doesn't even want this review to exist. Or at least that's what he'd have us believe. A couple of days before the Weeknd's first-ever Vancouver concert, on his first-ever tour, word came down that Tesfaye wasn't approving any press requests to cover the show. That didn’t mean we couldn’t come to the party; it just meant we’d be paying our way in like everyone else. Tesfaye knew perfectly well we would be there. He was counting on it.
The Weeknd's entire career to date has been based on what you might call antihype. Since emerging a little over a year ago with House of Balloons, his first collection of brooding and dark R&B, with its oddly compelling balance of menace and tenderness, the 22-year-old crooner has refused all requests for interviews and media appearances. And the world would ordinarily have been all too happy to support an unknown artist's apparent vow of obscurity. But this guy knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows, for example, that the more he hides, the more we’ll come looking for him. And it’s working. Without selling so much a single track (House of Balloons and its two follow-ups, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, were free downloads), the Weeknd became 2011’s most talked-about newcomer.
If you're going to play this kind of game, you need to possess an unswerving belief that you are hot shit. Because when you finally do come out of hiding—and you have to, sooner or later, because playing the reluctant pop star gets old fast—you had better be able to deliver the goods.
Based on what he delivered to a sold-out Commodore on Saturday night, the Weeknd's confidence is fully warranted. Drawing the sort of hipsters who wouldn't be caught with their skinny jeans down at a Ne-Yo gig (you attract a different kind of R&B fan when your songs sample the Cocteau Twins, Beach House, and Siouxsie and the Banshees), Tesfaye gave a clinic in how to connect with a crowd without ever breaking down the barrier between performer and audience.
Backed by a guitarist, a drummer, and a bassist-keyboardist, each of whom provided solid accompaniment without drawing undue attention to himself, the singer showed that the sometimes scarily intimate quality of his singing carries just as well in a sweaty club as it does on his recordings. And on numbers like “The Birds Part 1” and “The Morning” he sang his ass off, making his breathless confidences of pill-popping debauchery and drunken sex sound like deeply felt pleas for redemption. The music sometimes sounds like a jarring collision between indie rock and hip-hop, but Tesfaye is unquestionably a soul singer. And he wasn’t the only one singing; the entire room seemed to have every word committed to memory and wasn’t shy about proving it.
Whether all those seemingly confessional lyrics are pages torn from his diary or merely chapters of an ever-growing body of lurid fiction is anyone's guess. He's sure as hell not telling, either. Tesfaye's stage chatter was less than revealing. “You can get your lighter out for this one. I want to burn this motherfucker down,” is hardly fodder for a future VH1 Storytellers episode.
In other words, the Weeknd stepped off the Commodore's stage just as much of an enigma as he had been when he walked onto it a little over an hour earlier. And that, presumably, is all part of the master plan. But if he asks, you didn’t read that here.