By Anupa Mistry
It was withquiet confidence that the Weeknd mastermind Abel Tesfaye executed his very first show Sunday night (July 24) in Toronto at the Mod Club. But the hour-plus, outrageously anticipated performance itself was anything but timid. No one knew what to expect from the stealthy, press-shy R&B singer. We’ve never seen him. He’s never even performed live.
Scheduled to open next Sunday’s massive OVO Fest at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, alongside rapper Drake (who throws the annual to-do) and Miami don Rick Ross, Tesfaye clearly needed this debut to calm his nerves. Perhaps even as much as his fans needed to hear tracks off his much-hyped ‘House of Balloons’ mixtape finally unleashed live.
Camera flashes lit up the stage as the curtain pulled back on Tesfaye, in a rolled-sleeve camouflage shirt and a hi-top fade. Launching into ‘House of Balloons’ opener ‘High for This,’ it was clear Tesfaye was dazed by both the size and frenzy of the sold-out crowd — not to mention the ridiculous line-up snaking around the club outside, with some in the queue reportedly camped out for nearly ten hours after rumours surfaced last minute that a handful of tickets might be released at the door. A good chunk of the crowd were record label A&R, including most of the top dogs at Diddy’s Bad Boy records, eager to see the unsigned sensation.
Playing with a live band — and a good one, at that — does incredible things for the Weeknd’s moody, paranoid music (which first started to gain buzz late last year when three tracks were thrown up on YouTube, with little info about who was behind it). Tesfaye already has a pure-sounding voice — angelic, floaty, and forceful when needed — and the addition of a drummer, guitar and bassist/keys player added a raucousness that the album itself was missing.
During ‘The Morning,’ the Weeknd’s pseudo-mentor Drake stood on the balcony yelling the words to the chorus with as much excitement as the fans below. But the rap mega-star made no cameo appearances Sunday night, allowing Tesfaye to finally put aside all the mystery and fully have his moment.
Running through all the songs from the free, Polaris Prize-nominated ‘House of Balloons’ (plus a few new ones, like ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Birds Pt. 1’), the Weeknd didn’t stray too far from their trusted arrangements — though the team who make up Tesfaye’s live band took the lead and ad-libbed when the moment allowed.
‘Coming Down’ opened with Tesfaye on keys, mic cracking, while ‘Glass Table Girls’ was extended with alt-y guitar work and vocal key changes, enhancing the album version’s screw effect, and ‘Loft Music’ sounded like a dream live.
The 20-year-old (yes, he’s only 20) relished the sense of excitement running through the room: letting the amped crowd sing whole choruses and verses, peppering his praise for the hometown audience with forceful, relieved f-bombs. He also smiled a lot, clearly thrilled that his first gig — which was downright ambitious since he’d thrown it DIY style without a promoter and offered no special access to the media looking to cover the spectacle — had been such a wild success.
The tangible hesitance and Tesfaye’s few soft-spoken monologues tempered a lot of the doped-up persona and sexual excess that fuels the content of and hype around ‘House of Balloons.’ We buy our stars damaged these days, as Amy Winehouse’s heartbreaking death proves, but seeing a clear-eyed, present face behind the Weeknd was grounding and sort of a relief — it feels like he’s here to stay.