On my way out of The Weeknd show at The Music Hall of Williamsburg last night, a guy shuffled past me, talking excitedly to his friend, who I mistook for a half-second to be Greta Gerwig, and said: “That was UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE, and it wasn’t even the show I wanted to see!” It was a funny comment. Difficult to process for a minute—like, did you think you were here to see Waka?—but in the context of Abel Tesfaye and his glorious entrance into New York’s public eye, it’s understandable. We’ve been living with and loving these songs for so long, and by long I mean a little over a year, but shit, that’s like unlocking the genome of some ancestral human in internet years. Guys, do you remember House of Balloons? With nary a magazine profile and just two Coachella performances to call our own (though a diligent instagram commenter corrected that Tesfaye has played numerous shows at small venues and college campuses before these bigger performances), how could we not have expectations? We have dreamed this show a thousand times, and now it’s real (the full Coachella performance stream did not count). To say that it was a let down would be just plain callous. It’d be like not liking the guy you obsessed over for a year as soon as he started liking you back. And anyway, The Weeknd show last night wasn’t a let down. It was good. But Tesfaye has thrown down an awkward gauntlet to navigate, a kind of chicken or egg situation where, like Bruce Springsteen, he wants to and probably can (minus the really high notes! thanks, again, intstagram pundits!) to sing to the back of the stadium, even if the stadium is just a mid-size venue. It’s like he’s too big for his britches, but maybe he’s just like a really tall kid in middle school. Give him some space! In any case, I’m going to tell you about The Weeknd show that I did, in fact, come to see, and maybe a little bit about The Weeknd show I hope to see in the near future.
First, let’s start with the basics: the show was sold out and populated with a highly diverse and representative gathering of people you’d expect to be at The Weeknd show. It really couldn’t have been better casted: There were the self-serious, twenty-to-thirty-something music nerds, young-looking girls who seem to have all learned to dance by watching MTV spring break, kids that usually go only to rap shows, overly excited older woman on friend dates looking for love and French Montana (more on that later). Tesfaye was greeted to Bieber-pitched screams, the kind that make you both worried for the screamer and for your eardrums, and was flanked on either side by two formidably attractive guitarists, a drummer, a DJ and a soundman. He started out, fittingly, with “High For This,” everyone lost their shit, and he segued into an abbreviated intro of “Dirty Diana”—a teaser, really, that made me feel embarrassingly emotional, like when I get goosebumps and teary watching someone really nail a song on The Voice. And man, does he have a voice! Sure, the high notes are wobbly and he hasn’t yet fully commanded the stage, the audience or his backing band. But what the hell, the dude is a talent. He would win any show, hands down, even if the judges had their backs turned away in their special made-for-tv spinning reality show thrones and weren’t able to see that his face is, in fact, also very attractive. He’s got star quality on the inside.
One thing Tesfaye has got to overcome in these next performances, though, is playing like he’s a special guest at his own show. I don’t mean that in the way that he seems overly entitled, in fact, I felt quite the opposite: he seems like a really nice and appreciative guy. At one particularly endearing moment, on “Crew Love” Tesfaye called out: “Frenchie, where you at?” And all heads turned to French Montana up on the balcony, like a fair Juliette. (Funnily enough, about three songs later, Frenchie had been turned into DJ Premier in an impromptu game of crowd-sourced Telephone) A later twitter search confirmed: wherefore art thou, Frenchie? It was cute that Tesfaye hadn’t considered the misdirected attention that simple shout out would provoke. But it’s the hype and nerves probably, that made him rush through the first few songs like he was in a hurry to get to his private jet for a show in Miami. We’re not there…yet! The Weeknd will be here all weekend. Lots of people have bemoaned or marveled at the crazy sing-a-long vibe at his most recent shows. I think this feeling is partially heightened by the fact that everyone feels like they loved The Weeknd first, lots of side-eyeing each other like “I know these lyrics better than you, you phony.” Not to be mistaken with euphony. This aint no fucking sing-a-long, right?
But it is. And that’s great. The world needs more stars. We’ve lost so many, recently, and there’s a real dearth in major public talent. It’s very hard to avoid talking about Michael Jackson when you hear Tesfaye sing. Forget the cover. There are some deep tonal similarities, though thankfully Tesfaye, thankfully, wrestles more openly with his demons and hopefully that’s catharsis enough to keep him afloat from what I’ve interpreted to be a very deep and exacting self-critical edge. This is also what makes him good. Fittingly, for the encore, Tesfaye came out to do an acoustic version of “Wicked Games.” Now I’m old enough for MTV Unplugged to mean something to me in an “of my time” kind of way. What I’m saying is I watched Nirvana unplugged when it aired…ON TV! Those flower candles really meant something to me. I don’t mean to say this in an all-knowing, wagging-fingery way. I mean, I’ve internalized Neil Young Live at Massie Hall in my soul, and it happened before I was born. You don’t have to be part of it for it to mean something to you, but let me just say, I’m really excited to see The Weeknd Unplugged. I really am, but I also think I’d like to see him get to a place where being plugged in feels okay first.