26 Apr 2012: 9:30 Club Washington, D.C.
I’ve never seen a crowd at DC’s famous 9:30 Club react to a performer like April 26th’s crowd reacted to The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye. It could be because The Weeknd is finally playing shows after an incredible year spent shrouded in equal parts success and secrecy, or it could be because the band took the stage an hour late that night and gave the crowd plenty of time to get hyped. But, really, it’s because Tesfaye and his Weeknd project have the talent and once-in-a-decade skills to inspire that kind of fervent, impassioned love in a crowd. You know, they’re loving the crew.
Tesfaye must have spent a good deal of time working out just how to transition The Weeknd from a studio-minded, headphones project to a full-throated live animal. His care and attention shows: a simple set-up, with guitar and bass and live drums, supplemented by backing tracks and a wicked light show, let The Weeknd’s songs stretch out and breathe onstage. When the beat first dropped on opener “High for This” (of course), huge strobe lights illuminated the crowd. It was an exhilarating moment, the excitement and force of The Weeknd’s meteoric rise compressed into a single, retina-searing explosion. And it only got better from there.
Tesfaye, interestingly, didn’t play the cool, detached observer in the manner of his persona on The Weeknd’s trilogy of mixtapes. He grinned the whole set through, his enthusiasm to perform bubbling over into serious, earnest gratitude—not an emotion to be found on his records, but one more than welcome in a live setting. The crowd, especially the women on the floor, screamed and waved their arms at him to match the feeling. When the band played the beginning of “D.D.”, The Weeknd’s reinterpretation of “Dirty Diana”, the comparisons to Jacko himself made more sense than ever.
The set focused on all three parts of The Weeknd’s trilogy in equal measure, spanning the distance from early favorites like “The Morning” to later slowburners like “Outside”, the latter evidence of an interesting choice to shy away from a pure ‘Greatest Hits’ show in favor of one that investigated the whole of the textures explored by The Weeknd in the studio. House of Balloons (2011) closer “The Knowing”, for example, proved a surprise highlight, complete with a scorching guitar solo that would’ve made Slash tip his top hat in approval. On the other end of the spectrum, “Montreal” and “Loft Music”—perhaps The Weeknd’s two most straightforward pop numbers and easy highlights of the project’s discography—were strangely truncated, each cut off roughly halfway through. Here, Tesfaye seemed to be taking cues from hip-hop shows, where rappers will perform a song up to the point of its first hook before stopping. That works for hip-hop presarios who have to navigate around guest verses and repetitive structures, but The Weeknd’s songs merit a full run-through. Who wouldn’t want to hear Tesfaye croon those final strains of “Loft Music”?
Still, these are minor qualms. Drake’s presence was missed during “Crew Love” and “The Zone”, but not as much as you might think—the performance highlighted Tesfaye’s role in anchoring both tracks. By the time he closed the show with a fantastic, spine-tingling version of “Wicked Games”, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, the crowd had gotten everything they’d come for. We wanted to see if Tesfaye and The Weeknd could possibly survive the expectations thrust upon them, if they could successfully become a live band that exists in flesh-and-blood in front of us instead of only on our car stereos or laptop speakers. If anyone in the room doubted the answer by the evening’s end, they must have kept quiet while the rest of us screamed ourselves hoarse.
High for This
D.D. / The Birds
Crew Love / The Zone
The Party & The After Party
House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls
Wicked Games (Acoustic)