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.
It's the last week to catch this fine production of one of the best of the ten plays in August Wilson's so-called Pittsburgh Cycle.
The work is notable because, although it was one of the late Wilson's final plays to debut, it's chronologically where the Cycle begins: in 1904, in a house on Wylie Avenue, in the Hill District.
Like every other Wilson play, it's set in a single space, with no set changes. But in the Pittsburgh-born playwright's grand vision, Gem nonetheless seems to encompass the whole of the African-American experience to the date of its setting. Several characters are ex-slaves, for instance, and two of them are old Underground Railroad hands, stories about which experience powerfully underpin a few scenes.
Most striking, however, is the appearance of Wilson's most iconic character, Aunt Ester — a 200-plus-year-old former slave who's now a wise woman and washer of souls." Her presence in the Hill is discussed throughout the Cycle, but I'm pretty sure Gem is the only time she appears on stage. She's embodied here in a memorable performance by Chrystal Bates, who manages to make Ester earthy and uncanny at the same time.
Meanwhile, among very much else, in Gem Wilson offers a riveting dramatization of what the law means, and is worth. The play's signal incident, which occurs offstage, is the death of a tin-mill worker who drowns in the river fleeing lawmen who would take his freedom on the unsubstantiated charge he stole a bucket of nails.
The play's climax involves a bit of anarchistic justice-serving. And it's no coincidence that the chief antagonist is Cesar Wilkes, who's one of Wilson's best heavies and also a lawman who can abide no rule-breaking, even for a greater good.Here's Ted Hoover's review of the show for CP.
Playwrights is the most dedicated interpreter of Wilson's work in town, staging a different installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle each year for the past nine. The troupe, under artistic director Mark Clayton Southers, is also arguably the best producer of Wilson's work in town.
This production, directed by Southers, also stars Jonathan Berry, Kevin Brown, David Crawford, Kim El, Alan Bomar Jones and Wali Jamal.
There are four more shows at Playwrights' Downtown space, at 8 p.m. Thu., June 21; 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., June 23; and 3 p.m. Sun., June 24.
Tags: Program Notes
This week's MP3 Monday comes from indie rock duo Grain. Made up of Wayne Smith and Carla Simmons, Grain has been around for about a decade, carving the way for their unique take on rock and roll. Check out "My Mind's Awake" from the band's new album Echo in the Air below.
[Download link expired, sorry!]
In March, City Paper kicked off our new quarterly live-concert series, Sounding Board, with a fun show at Peter's Pub in Oakland. This time the event moved to the South Side, where our host was the Smiling Moose. The three featured artists have been covered in one way or another by CP in the first half of 2012. Attendees paid a $6 cover and the beer special was $1 Iron City's.THE BANDS
Bluebird Midwest is the solo project of Roger Harvey, who you might know from his band White Wives. White Wives released its debut a little under a year ago on Adeline, the label run by Billie Joe and Adrienne Armstrong. Bluebird Midwest released its first video through CP's music blog, FFW>>, in February.
Triggers were featured in the music section in April, when the band's second record, Forcing a Smile, was officially released.And rounding out the lineup: Our Music Guide's cover models Tracksploitation, the DJ duo from the future that often dresses in costume. The pair, JCT 45 and Professor ASAP, closed out the night by giving us plenty of reasons to dance.
The eleventh installment of the Rhyme Calisthenics MC competition is set to happen Sat., June 16th at the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty. Hosted by Thelonious Stretch and DJ Big Phill, the homecoming competition will run in collaboration with the longest-running hip-hop dance party in Pittsburgh, Classic Material.
Eight MCs will compete for $200 cash, four hours of studio time and free stuff from Timebomb. RC will also feature performances from locals Zone and Shade Cobain & Co., along with New York City's C-Rayz Walz. $10 gets you in for the competition, which start at 10 p.m.
We here at City Paper have been fans of Weird Paul for some time — and Pittsburgh's Rock Humourist in Residence is no stranger to national attention, having spent time on the same label as Dinosaur, Jr. and Sebadoh back in the '90s, and having been the subject of a documentary a few years back. But now he's gone viral.
Weird Paul (nee Petroskey) was one of those kids who had a video camera and, for whatever reason, full reign to do what he wanted with it — which is basically every kid today, but was pretty rare in the mid-'80s. Lately he's been digitizing some of the material he put together back then, and his video about eating breakfast from McDonald's has been making the rounds. A mention on Gizmodo, now a mention on Huffington Post — and now his video has nearly 30,000 views. If you haven't seen it yet:
Holding signs that said "285," "Our kids need teachers," and "Our city needs these jobs," several dozen educators, parents and children gathered in front of the Pittsburgh Board of Education Wednesday afternoon to protest education cuts and attract media attention for the 285 teachers furloughed by the Pittsburgh School District in May.
Jessie Ramey, the founder of the blog Yinzercation, which details the reasons to be against Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's cuts in state education spending, led the group in chants for "adequate, equitable and sustainable public funding of education."
"We're here today because our children need their best teachers in the classroom, not the unemployment line," she said.
Amanda Godley, a parent of an 8-year-old soon-to-be fourth-grader who attends Colfax in Squirrel Hill, said she was worried that class sizes will increase.
"We're really concerned that the Governor is decimating education," she said.
Michelle Boyle, a parent of two daughters, a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old who attend Fulton in Highland Park, said she felt the teachers have been doing what the state has asked of them, improving test scores and making significant improvements.
"The state government is not holding up its end of the deal," she said. "What the governor is doing is criminal."
The protest, which started at about 6 p.m., was brief. By quarter to 7 p..m., the signs were collected and stashed.
Who said side projects are never successful? Adventures, the traditional-emo-tinged band featuring members of Code Orange Kids, Lilith and Breach, has announced its signing with No Sleep Records to release its debut 7-inch EP. Adventures illustrates a middle ground between the members' other bands: not as heavy as Code Orange Kids but heavier than Lilith. The band's sound hearkens to middle America's wave of emo from the 90's, similar to Rainer Maria, The Get Up Kids, and other bands that paved the way for the style on Saddle Creek Records.
Details of the release are sparse, but No Sleep promises the EP to be released soon. In the meantime, check out "Reach Out To You" below.
Today's installment of MP3 Monday comes from Philadelphia-via-Pittsburgh rapper Plots (aka Rich Anthony). Also a member of The 1s And 2s, Anthony has recently released a solo album with production from Romanian producer Jammineye called Pay Attention. Check out "The Bright Lights" below.
[Download link expired, sorry!]
A notable element of the Distinctively Dutch arts festival was a preponderance of multimedia. I didn't catch all the festival performances, but nearly every one I did see incorporated video heavily, from the performance art of Wunderbaum's Detroit Dealers and PIPs:lab's Diespace to the sensory overload of JacobTV's avant-opera The News.
No surprise, then, that the larger of the festival's visual-art exhibits is also heavy on video. Global Navigators is spread over three galleries: Wood Street, Space and 709 Penn. Nadine Wasserman has already reviewed this intriguing show for CP, but here's a final nudge to see it before it closes this weekend.
Two works in this group show especially struck me. At Wood Street, Peter Bogers' "Unleashed Content" is a room-sized video installation with 36 video projections in a grid, each connected to a speaker hanging from the ceiling. (Don't mistake the speakers for mere sculptural elements, as apparently many visitors do at first.) Bogers took the unruly results of Internet video searches for words like "fight" and edited them into a synchronized spectacle that might bowl you over. (Wood Street also houses "Nummer acht, Everything is going to be alright," a darkly humorous high-concept video by Guido van der Werve, a still from which is pictured here.)
And over at Space, I spent some quality time with Mark Boulos' "No Permanent Address." It's a five-screen video document of his stay with some Maoist guerrillas of the New Peoples' Army, in the Phillippines. The segment I saw depicted a small group of men and women camping in the jungle, awaiting a firefight with enemies whom they believe to be just 300 yards away. They carry automatic weapons; they sing "The Internationale"; they tell what drove them to guerrilla warfare. In general, they seem to be ordinary people driven to the edge. (One masked young woman wears a butterfly barrette in her hair.)
As demonstrated by the terrific Girls 'N Guns photography show, which recently closed at 707 Penn gallery, the artists in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust-organized Distinctively Dutch Festial don't need video to succeed. But they definitely know how to use it.
Global Navigators closes Sun., June 17.