Reporting Scott T. Sterling
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The signs were posted conspicuously around the venue, Los Angeles’ lush Greek Theater, nestled in the hills of the city’s Griffith Park: “Please be advised, tonight’s show contains mature content.”
Being the first of a two-night stand (Sept. 16-17) from mysterious alt-R&B Lothario, the Weeknd, such disclaimers would seem like a moot point. The artist born Abel Tesfaye has built his shadowy persona with a murky morass of sexual songs that celebrate excess, weaving a sonic world of wanton desires, drug-fueled orgies, and always fighting the inevitable pain and shame of the serotonin-depleted comedown.
For the uninitiated, the Weeknd’s rise from mixtape sensation to headlining a pair of well-attended shows at an outdoor amphitheater with a capacity of 5,700 bodies can seem a little sudden for an artist promoting his first official studio album, the recently released Kiss Land.
His throngs of adoring fans, however, were built back in 2011, when the Weeknd released a series of three mixtapes that played more like fully-formed albums: House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence (later collected as the triple-album release, Trilogy). With his atmospheric sound, seductive falsetto and stark eroticism, Tesfaye established himself as the figurehead of a cult-like following sprung on his lascivious tales of the never-ending after-party.
On this fall tour to support Kiss Land, the Weeknd has gone all out to create an immersive experience reflective of the album’s Japanese street aesthetic with lots of neon and rapid-fire videos and lighting effects. The set featured a well-paced balance of songs from his entire catalog, ably blending the new songs in with fan favorites from the Trilogy era.
The show started with Tesfaye performing new song “Adaptation” behind a giant, gauzy curtain to shrieking screams mostly from his female fans, his artfully-styled dreadlocks cutting a striking silhouette. Some of the older songs received updated arrangements, like a stripped-down version of “What You Need,” with the full live band giving the tunes even more muscle.
The “mature content” kicked into high gear during the performance of the title track from Kiss Land, featuring graphic scenes of lesbian porn projected behind the band as Tesfaye delivered the equally pornographic lyrics.
From the assaultive beat of “Belong to the World” to the ‘80s dance thump of “Wanderlust,” The Weeknd’s new songs added new dynamics to the live show, making the most of the grand scale of the fall tour.
The young audience lustily sang along to numbers like “High for This” and “Crew Love” to the point that Tesfaye could just stand back and allow the crowd to carry the tune. “Wicked Games” had the distinction of being lit up by thousands of lighters in the crowd at Tesfaye’s behest, creating a warm, intimate moment between the Weeknd and the fans.
While critics are eager to take Tesfaye to task for the rampant and loveless sexuality of the Weeknd’s music, the more interesting (and relevant) question to ask is why so many people are drawn to his dark-lit underworld where drugs flow freely and sex is both currency and a weapon, armed with such come-on lines as “I’m not a fool/I just love that you’re dead inside.”
Even Tesfaye himself questions the Weeknd’s appeal on the new album’s title track, singing, “This is nothing to relate to/Even if you tried.” All the while, thousands of adoring fans at the Greek sang those words right back at him.
Opening the show was emerging buzz artist Banks, who delivered slinky, electro-tinged tunes that invoked classic ‘90s trip-hop heroes like Portishead and Massive Attack. She galvanized the crowd with a minimal but still soulful take on Lauryn Hill’s 1998 single, “Ex-Factor.”
Australian DJ Anna Lunoe was also on hand to drop a tasteful set of current dance tracks, including Daft Punk’s “Doin’ it Right” and her own tune, “Breathe,” which samples John Rocca’s 1987 club hit “Move.”