Since releasing a free mixtape, House of Balloons, in March, 21-year-old R&B singer Abel Tesfaye – otherwise known as the Weeknd – has been tantalizing fans and critics alike with his mysterious persona. Refusing interviews and often posting cryptic, short messages on Twitter, Tesfaye has cultivated a strong following based on internet buzz but until last night, when he played to a sold-out crowd at Toronto’s Mod Club, he had yet to make a proper live debut.
Tesfaye owes much of his current fame to his mentor, fellow Toronto native Drake, who met him in 2009 when a songwriting/production team Tesfaye was part of called the Noise wrote a song for the rapper, who was then putting together his debut full-length Thank Me Later. The track, “Birthday Suit,” never made it on the album, but Drake kept an eye on Tesfaye nonetheless – and when the latter release House of Balloons, Drake was so impressed that he tweeted the lyrics to the song “Wicked Games” and linked to it on his blog. Now, each is working on the other’s upcoming records – and Drake has remained Tesfaye’s biggest booster.
And for good reason. His songs sounded spot-on, if not better, live, proving the wait for Tesfaye has been completely worth it. Though apparent on recordings, Tesfaye’s voice is even more astounding in person; it soared over the screaming crowd, which sang along to every song.
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Since Tesfaye’s music heavily weighs on samples, ranging from Beach House to Aaliyah, it seemed logical that the performance would be barebones, perhaps vocals plus backing tracks, like the clip that surfaced on YouTube last year of the singer performing at a talent show at the University of Toronto, where he is a student. Instead, the Weeknd is a complete band live. With the help of a drummer, guitarist and bassist/keyboardist, a majority of the samples were recreated onstage, with the laptop merely tucked away side-stage, used sparingly in between everything. Opener “High for This” and “Glass Table Girls” benefitted from the transformation, becoming anthemic crowd pleasers whereas “Coming Down” was stripped down to keyboard ballad and “Rolling Stone” still upheld its acoustic charm.
As expected, Tesfaye’s hype man was present. Watching from a VIP balcony that overlooked the audience, Drake was probably the biggest fan of the show. Singing out loud to every track, the rapper – currently wrapping up his new record, Take Care – even donned a lighter in the air for his friend. After the show, he tweeted: “I am so fuckin proud. You performed magic tonight.”
Artist to Watch: The Weeknd