Abel Tesfaye, otherwise known as the Weeknd, has built his career upon a detached mystique, hardly showing his face, giving nary an interview and releasing music online capriciously. Last night at Bowery Ballroom, it was clear that this ploy of always keeping them wanting more has paid off.
After performing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn earlier in the week, the Toronto-based singer kicked off the second of two sold-out NYC shows. A plain green military jacket over a black t-shirt and his signature longish fade belied the unsigned singer’s swelling buzz. Amid a frenzied crowd interspersed with record industry heavyweights, including a very rapt Sean "Diddy" Combs, the Weeknd began without fanfare and jumped right into the fitting opener, "High For This," which spilled into "D.D." – a sensuous rendition of Michael Jackson’s ode to groupies gone wild, "Dirty Diana." Tesfaye’s usually dark, woozy numbers were given upbeat life by a three-piece live band, which he sourced online earlier this year. The live backing of bass, guitar and percussion added lush color to the soundscape without compromising the music’s druggy sensibilities; coupled with the warm flashing lights onstage, a loft party milieu of sorts was in effect.
Tesfaye’s soft croon maintained surprising fortitude throughout the set, though he warbled from time to time on songs like "Rolling Stone" (which ironically features the lyrics "Yeah I know I got my issues/Why you think I fuckin' flow?/And I'mma keep on smoking 'til I can't hit another note"). The mesmerized crowd served as more than ample vocal support throughout and matched him remarkably word-for-word as he delved into his three Internet mixtapes: House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. During tracks like Drake’s "Crew Love" and "The Knowing," the audience roared over even the singer himself.
Still mastering that art of onstage small talk, he kept largely mum save for a requisite "How many of ya’ll are fucked up?" or "How many of you downloaded Echoes of fucking Silence?" Despite the bravado of his artistic persona, Tesfaye was clearly still adjusting to the notion of fame. "I didn’t think you’d be as amped," he admitted at one point, humbled by the outpouring of adoration.
He closed with the airy "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls," featuring an infectious sample of "Happy House" by Siouxsie and the Banshees, but it was the encore "Wicked Games" that proved the set’s most brilliant moment. Accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, the lusty, sinister track was given a stripped-down vulnerability. "Bring your love baby I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain/I got my heart right here, I got my scars right here," he moaned. A fitting metaphor for The Weeknd himself: he had the audience hooked, but before they could ask for another hit, he was gone.