The Weeknd‘s improbable two-year transformation from recluse to Radio City Music Hall headliner materialized Tuesday (October 7) during his first of two consecutive nights at the legendary New York City venue. After a compelling opening set from Los Angeles singer BANKS (more on her in a bit), Canada’s Abel Tesfaye appeared on stage behind a transparent screen for opener “Adaptation” — a not-so-subtle reference to his time shrouded in Internet fog and subsequent decision to “choose the life” by conquering the R&B world. The metamorphosis was complete once the screen fell to the ground, Tesfaye exposed in front of a few thousand rabid fans. There’s no hiding at Radio City (though the ever-present cloud of weed smoke did its part), and Tesfaye didn’t want to hide — between songs, he peppered in smiles and declarations of gratitude. The same guy who can’t fuck with “kisses leading into nothing” sweetly coos, “You guys got me here. Thank you.” It was a little jarring.
The Weeknd revealed to the crowd that Kiss Land was the title of the road journal he started during his very first tour, when he took his very first plane two years ago to play a show in New York City. The album of the same name is subsequently Tesfaye’s “life on the road” treatise, but it’s not just the lyrics that were written with touring in mind. With Kiss Land, Tesfaye clearly aimed to construct concert songs, songs that bang live, songs that will rock festivals. And last night’s show proved he was successful in that goal.
It’s a big step for a guy who started as an anonymous, fame-averse specter. Now he knows the price of reaching for the rafters, and seems to relish in it. This impressive, and impressively condensed, evolution was put on display immediately, as Tesfaye opened up with four tracks from Kiss Land in front of neon signs depicting a seedy Japanese district. From the fuzz blasts of “Belong To The World” to the choppy bridge of “The Town,” the album’s thrilling moments became bona fide Moments in concert. Even the insular “Professional” and contemplative “Love In The Sky” boasted sections of rattling heft and squalling guitar.
The most raucous part of the night, though, came from “Crew Love,” with that cacophonous flurry of cymbals and synth waves enveloping the venue for a suffocating dose of Skrillex-level mecha-fury, care of Tesfaye’s motorik-tight backing band. (My only complaint is that his still-intimate, laser-beam voice probably could’ve been brought up in the mix throughout the whole night.)
Most of the neon-garnished set was focused on Kiss Land, but Tesfaye did dig back to the game-changing House Of Balloons with “What You Need,” “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” and some other favorites, and these tracks allowed his voice to take more of a central role. (Strangely, he performed just one track from Thursday, and nothing from Echoes Of Silence made the cut.)
The last song before his encore was the churning “Wanderlust,” which brought a level of poppy energy that was unimaginable when he first emerged in 2011. Then the alt R&B vanguard rewarded the OG fans who stayed during the encore by finishing the night up with HoB classic ”Wicked Games.”
The Weeknd’s mystery may be gone, but last night we saw that there’s an ambitious wiz behind the curtain.
Before all that grandeur, BANKS was the perfect lead-in: a sweet, soulful mirror image of The Weeknd’s sonic and thematic coldness. Imagine your first touring experience is with the man who’s just released an entire album about the bleakness of the touring experience and who sings that album’s title track as Japanese lesbian porn plays on giant screens behind him (yep, this happened during “Kiss Land”). And imagine this tour takes you to New York’s vaunted Radio City Music Hall just a year after you first started recording songs. The stakes were high for BANKS, and her seven-song, 30-minute set proved she’s a force to be reckoned with.
The L.A. singer started things off with London EP opener “This Is What It Feels Like,” and immediately two things were apparent. First, she was much more mobile and active on stage than I was expecting a pianist-turned-alt R&B-songstress to be. Secondly, her voice is shockingly powerful and chameleonic, which isn’t readily apparent on record due to the layering and effects. She fluctuated between a bird-like chirp, a ’20s jazz/blues vibrato, a smoky warble, and just straight-up soulful wails.
Her vulnerable take on neo-R&B caught the attention of the early arrivers, but she really wowed everyone (and showed she’s not tethered to the PBR&B fad) with a beautiful cover of Lauryn Hill‘s “Ex-Factor” (timely!).
BANKS closed things out with “Waiting Game,” the lurching percussion sounding particularly massive. It was a forceful capper to a set that showcased her versatility and announced her arrival.
The Weeknd setlist:
2. Love In The Sky
3. Belong To The World
4. The Town
5. What You Need/Professional
6. House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls
8. Loft Music
9. The Morning
10. Remember You/The Zone
11. High For This
12. The Party & The After Party
13. Kiss Land
14. Live For/Crew Love
17. Wicked Games
1. This Is What It Feels Like
2. Before I Ever Met You
4. Fall Over
5. Ex-Factor (Lauryn Hill cover)
6. Warm Water
7. Waiting Game
Top photo credit: La Mar C. Taylor
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