The line at Mr. Small’s yesterday evening for one of the first dates of The Weeknd’s first national tour stretched out past the second door, down to the steps that lead out to Lincoln Avenue. It was still sweaty at 8:30pm, and the cross-section of concert goers in line was impressive. There were groups of folks dressed like they were ready to get bottle service at a dance club (I couldn’t help staring, their attire in the context of Milvale was particularly perplexing), backpack hip-hop kids, indie music dorks, and a wide assortment of college and high school students milling about, wide-eyed and anxious.
Two women stood behind me in line and had this exchange.
Woman 1: “What if someone comes out, and it’s not him. It’s someone who’s really ugly or something.”
Woman 2: “I don’t even know what he looks like.”
“He,” is Abel Tefsaye, the 22-year-old Toronto native and avant-garde R&B wunderkind behind The Weeknd. And as reluctant as I am to assimilate the thesis statements from a handful of clingy, music-journo think pieces in my own writing, I don’t have much choice when discussing Tesfaye. He became a viral sensation in March of 2011 after the internet music community exploded in adoration over the release of his online-only debut mixtape House of Balloons, benefiting from a massive and eager co-sign from Toronto native Drake, even while The Weeknd and Tesfaye remained shrouded in mystery. Fifteen months and two more mixtapes later (Thursday and Echoes of Silence) Tesfaye has yet to accept a press or interview request, and communicates to the world primarily through a fairly terse Twitter account and a blog of de-contextualized photos, leaving his legion of fans and critics to speculate furiously about his music, and in turn, his personality. Maintaining relative anonymity is practically impossible (and usually undesired) for any musician these days, and it’s especially peculiar for an artist who has only released music through the internet. It’s interesting then that Tesfaye remains an anomaly. He’s a musician who feels extremely "of the moment" in sound (futuristic R&B) and presentation (all three mixtape covers look like they were designed specifically to be shared on a Tumblr) but ignores the default setting for his entire generation: over sharing.
Of course, none of this would matter if Tesfaye lacked talent as musician and songwriter, but his trilogy of mixtapes, along with Frank Ocean’s landmark Nostalgia, Ultra, provided a much needed shot in the arm (or bump of a line, as it were) for 21st century R&B. House of Balloons in particular is an arresting collection of narco-induced, post-club bangers, powered by chilly synths, unusually sharp samples, and shadowy, cavernous production. Tesfaye details after-after-hours parties with lyrics that sound like a wounded playboy in a coke-induced fog, evoking the sensual love making metaphors of his R&B forefathers before spiking the mood with ambiguous commands that could easily turn lethal.
Tesfaye’s music remained evocative on his following mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, and continued to push R&B further away from shameless babymaking odes (although he definitely has written a few) into another darker realm, one where the endless-party hedonism so mindlessly celebrated on countless Top 40 hits comes with consequences that won’t disappear when the sun rises.
For his live act, Tesfaye has been slowly working over the past year to create a worthy performance that is leagues beyond most viral-internet sensations (Lana Del Rey, anyone?) who usually arrive in desperate need of more seasoning. A small trickle of shows started occurring in his hometown of Toronto, as well as New York and London in late 2011, culminating this past April with a stunning set at Coachella that featured a full band confidently recreating the highlights from his small catalog. It was a surprise then that Tesfaye suddenly tweeted in early June about a string of summer concert dates that included, of all places, a show at Mr. Small’s in Pittsburgh, scheduled for just two weeks after the announcement.
The show was scheduled for 9:00 p.m. with no opener besides a relatively low-key DJ set. An impressive lighting rig lined the back of the stage, and by the time Tesfaye and his band came on stage a little after 9:20, I could tell this would be a step beyond the usual Mr. Small's fare in regards to theatricality. Tesfaye launched into the opening song of House of Balloons "High For This" and a consortium of strobes, smoke, and spotlights lit up the stage. "High For This" was a wise pick for a set opener, and the edgy production touches (especially the lurking, grimey drum hits in the first verse) from the record remained completely intact and amplified. When the chorus kicked into high-drama, you physically felt the impact of the live band, and the crowd sang along to arguably Tesfaye’s best, and darkest, lyrics: "Open your hand/ take a glass/ Don’t be scared/ I’m right here/ trust me girl/ you wanna be high for this."
The track selection was tight, interspersing some gorgeous, synth driven mid-tempo numbers like Thursday’s "Gone" and Balloons' "The Party and the After Party" (which both had their plinking piano lines augmented by twinkling effects from the lighting rig) as well as surprise inclusion Tesfaye’s hard hitting section of Drake’s "Crew Love" ("This ain’t no fuckin’ sing along/ so girl, what you singing for?") from Take Care. His stage presence was comfortable but intense. The usual R&B histrionics never seemed to bubble over into parody. Even when Tesfaye would reach out to the crowd and shut his eyes tight in anguish while hitting an unusually tricky falsetto, it seemed tortured rather than sexy.
By the time the relatively uplifting "The Morning" came around near the end of the set with its druggy guitar line and airy synths, Tesfaye stood with his eyes closed, barely moving besides a slight quiver, and cooly crushed my favorite of his lyrics: "From the morning to the evening/ complaints from the tenants/got these walls kicking like they six months pregnant,"). The set closer of "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls" should have been the climax of the show, but for the first time all set, the sound of Mr. Small’s failed the finer points of what is arguably Tesfaye’s best-produced track. The churning, complicated synth hits got covered up by the thundering baselines, and the Siouxie and The Banshees sample that seemed so massive on record was swallowed up by a very, very muddy mix.
Luckily, when Echoes of Silence track one "D.D." (or “Dirty Diana”) came on midway through the first encore (there were two, surprisingly), it absolutely destroyed. "D.D." is Tesfaye’s unabashed impersonation of Michael Jackson: an aggressive, dramatic calling out of the seductive, man-eating “Diana” complete with huge marching band drums, and soaring, two word chorus that makes great use of its five syllables ("Dir-ty Di-AN-uhhhhh, ohhh"). "D.D." hit where "House of Balloons" missed, but that’s really nitpicking. Abel Tesfaye is killing it on his first national tour, and his persona has only grown in stature over the past 15 months as he continues to protect his enigmatic image. It makes sense. Tesfaye makes dark, sexy, and dangerous music that should never be played in daylight. Staying in the shadows makes his music seem even darker, sexier. That mystery is a powerful thing.