Music fans have always been possessive over their favourite underground acts. We form the perception of a sophisticated taste around the fact that nobody has heard of our favourite bands, then complain when they blow up (or at the very least remind everyone about the days when they weren’tt so famous). And yet, watching Toronto crooner Abel Tesfaye go from blog darling to arena-packing popstar has been a relatively painless process.
I’ll admit that the first time I saw The Weeknd perform - when he was still shrouded in mystery and sampling Beach House records - I was very surprised to see the way he moved on stage, flicking his legs around like Michael Jackson, as he sang sparse ballads about the cocaine-fuelled romance. But looking back it was clearly all part of an ambitious vision; tonight as he closes the European leg of his ‘Starboy: Legend Of The Fall’ tour he’s playing chart-topping pop songs - mostly still about cocaine and women - to a packed out arena full of men, women and children, many of whom haven’t clocked the glaringly obvious subject matter of ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’, but are itching to move to its thumping bass line.
The Weeknd has followed a beautiful trajectory to pop stardom. He’s taken a steady climb without any overt grabs for chart success, and he’s continued to refrain from sharing too much with the media. He still draws from a vast pot of influences - he samples Tears For Fears on ‘Secrets’ and has called Lana Del Rey the female protagonist of his music - but it’s bigger and more ambitious in sound, while dealing with a similar subject matter; “I am not a Teen Choice” he warns on ‘Reminder’. Abel has pulled back the curtain a little since his introduction to the game as the faceless voice behind an acclaimed mixtape, but he still rarely breaks from the music to share any personality with his fans.
Still, he’s come this far by letting the music do the talking, and his debut arena tour allows him to show off just how deep the back catalogue is. He dives into tracks from his trilogy of mixtapes, right through to his new album ‘Starboy' as well as ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ - his second album, released in 2015, which established his pop star status but was never toured in Europe. Of course he plays the hits; Daft Punk collabs ‘Starboy’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ soundtrack contribution ‘Earned It’ and an energetic rendition of ‘The Hills’; but he goes deep too, pulling out tracks like ‘Glass Table Girls’ and ‘The Morning’, as well as his parts from Drake’s ‘Crew Love’ and Future’s ‘Low Life’. His vocal abilities certainly don’t disappoint, boasting a clarity that matches his recordings and filling the arena with ease.
As one man on a gigantic stage without much banter to offer between songs, the visual element could very easily have been lacking. He’s self-aware enough to realise this, and has teamed up with stage designer Es Devlin to create something that complements the retro-futuristic aesthetic that’s laced throughout ‘Starboy'. Taking off at the beginning of the show, an gigantic illuminated Star Destroyer hovers above the stage, morphing and folding beautifully throughout the show; it offers a narrative to the show, transforming as though on a journey. As it makes its landing for the encore, it forms a red crucifix, stabbing the stage in its final incarnation. While the visual side could so easily have been weak, instead it becomes a triumph; and later on is one of the main talking points as fans slowly navigate the concrete stairs out of the arena.
When The Weeknd and his band return for an encore, they’ve exchanged their slickness for raw power; putting a final burst of energy into punk renditions of ‘False Alarm’, ‘Glass Table Girls’ and ‘The Hills’. He takes a final walk down the runway as he belts out vocals that sound as clear as ever, even over the aggression of his band letting go as they hit the home straight. His superstar quality is undeniable: even now as one of the biggest pop stars in a generation consumed by accessibility, Abel maintains the shroud of enigma that attracted fans to the icons of decades past. As he completes the European leg of his first worldwide headline arena tour, it’s certain that The Weeknd’s legend will far exceed one season.
Words: Grant Brydon