In my (quite recent) experience, most people over the age of oh-let’s-say-about-35 tend to have a small and predictable range of reactions when you say you’re going to a concert by The Weeknd.
If they’re on their toes, they might crack a joke along the lines of “Wait, The Weeknd is here? But it’s only Wednesday!”
If they’re not, a faint glimmer of recognition crosses their face and they mumble something about their kid being into “those guys” (to which the proper response is “actually, he’s just one guy”). Or, most commonly: blank stare, followed by a shrug, followed by a look of amazement when you mention he’s just about sold out the big arena on Trade Street.
To them, the R&B artist born in Toronto 27 years ago as Abel Makkonen Tesfaye might as well be from another galaxy; so, to me, it made a weird sort of sense that Tesfaye/The Weeknd would execute his grand entrance at Spectrum Center on Wednesday night by appearing under a massive, low-hanging collection of lighted geometric panels arranged in the basic shape of a Star Destroyer from “Star Wars.”
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I was initially a little surprised he would want to burn off the biggest hit he’s ever had in his still-relatively-new life as an international pop megastar – that’d be the swaggering “Starboy,” a collaboration with Daft Punk – during the first four minutes of his concert.
But hey, it’s tough to argue against getting things going with a song that, both in name and in certain lyrics (favorite: “Star Trek roof in that Wrath of Khan/Girls get loose when they hear this song”), so appropriately syncs up with the whole big-spaceship motif.
The elaborate rig was at times a mesmerizing set piece, sometimes audaciously shapeshifting almost like a giant Transformer toy, other times using just one or two spotlights to bathe The Weeknd in a wash of pinkish-red color, or to surround him in a cell made of narrow shafts of white light beams.
He spent most of his 90-minute, 25-song set pacing, strutting, high-stepping back and forth across a catwalk that extended roughly from baseline to baseline, often shifting direction on a dime, giving the security guards who had to shadow him along the edge of the stage fits as they tried to stay basically between him and the front row.
Tesfaye doesn’t have the moves of an Usher Raymond or a Chris Brown, but he more than makes up for it with a voice that evokes the tenor of Michael Jackson and the falsetto of Debarge. And then there’s his amorphous sound, which – with the help of his three-piece band – careened quickly from the rock edge of “In the Night” (if he had hair that moved, surely he would have whipped it back and forth during this one) to a slinky power ballad like “Earned It” (easily the best thing about the original “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie, although that’s not much of a contest) to a club-banger like “Party Monster” (which sent the crowd into a fist-pumping, foot-stomping frenzy).
Somehow, those tonal shifts aren’t jarring, but I’ve gotta say: I still find it a little disconcerting to hear something as beautiful and pure and clean as “Angel” (from 2015’s “Beauty Behind the Madness”) come from the same mouth that spews a torrent of pornographic lines in “Often” (from the same album).
The thousands of women in the crowd didn’t seem to mind at all, though, as they sang along to lyrics like – get ready for the bleeps:
“Need a chick to ride my ---- and back it up like parking
Show that -----, work that -----
Who that -----, that’s my -----
Wet that -----, stroke that -----, ooh”
One even tossed her bra on stage as The Weeknd late in the show; he picked up the underthing, held it in his outstretched arm for a few seconds, then flung it back in the direction it came from.
Interestingly, though many of his songs are sexually charged, Tesfaye himself shows very little skin; on Wednesday night, he sported a heavy black jacket over a black shirt, black skinny jeans and white high-tops – in rather sharp contrast to rap duo Rae Sremmurd, whose members barely made it through two songs of their opening set before starting to peel off shirts to reveal chiseled physiques and decorative tattoos.
Speaking of Rae Sremmurd … in another universe, with a lesser talent running the (space)ship, the Mississippi duo’s late-in-the-evening return to bounce through a euphoric rendition of its infectious single “Black Beatles” (with The Weeknd on backing vocals) might have threatened to overshadow the headliner.
But then The Weeknd capped the night by getting women to swoon over “Secrets” (that’s when the bra was tossed); throwing an impromptu rave with “Can’t Feel My Face” (that’s when fans danced more aggressively than they did all night); trotting out super-easy-to-sing-along-to pop confection “I Feel It Coming”; then dropping the hammer with a brilliantly executed single-song encore: anti-pop anthem “The Hills.”
And while he’s still got a ways to go before he can truly transcend generational divides in the way that a Justin Timberlake or a Bruno Mars can, on this night, in this arena, before this crowd, The Weeknd sure looked, sounded and felt like a superstar.
Or perhaps, we should say, a super-Starboy.
The Weeknd setlist
2. “Party Monster”
4. “Six Feet Under”
5. “Low Life” (Future cover)
6. “Might Not” (Belly cover) (with Belly)
8. “Crew Love” (Drake cover)
11. “Or Nah” (Ty Dolla $ign cover)
12. “Some Way” (Nav cover)
13. “Tell Your Friends”
14. “True Colors”
15. “Wicked Games”
17. “Earned It”
18. “PRBLMS” (6LACK cover) (with 6LACK)
19. “In the Night”
20. “Rockin’ ”
21. “Black Beatles” (Rae Sremmurd cover) (with Rae Sremmurd)
23. “Can’t Feel My Face”
24. “I Feel It Coming”
25. “The Hills”