Back in 2012, I remember speaking with a friend who had attended Coachella for the sole purpose of catching the Weeknd's first US show, only his third-ever live performance. My friend was disappointed, to say the least.
On the previous year's trilogy of introductory mixtapes, the singer born Abel Tesfaye crafted a seductive version of indie-friendly R&B, but all that cool was apparently stripped away when Tesfaye no longer had vocal effects and blog hype to hide behind. Existing YouTube videos of that 2012 set show a timid performer, an untested vocalist and hurried, sloppy, full-band arrangements. The mask was off, and Tesfaye didn't resemble the mysterious Lothario he did online.
Last night's stop at Moda Center proved this is no longer the case. Over the last five years, Tesfaye has morphed from a skittish performer into a full-blown pop star. His last two albums, 2015's Beauty Behind the Madness and last year's Starboy, brought the hits, to the tune of three No. 1 singles and a couple of platinum plaques, and his stage show now matches those of his peers on the charts.
The Starboy himself arrived by beaming up through the floor. The stage featured a catwalk that jutted out deep into the floor seats, and over that hung a color-changing platform that looked like Damocles' Star Destroyer when suspended mere feet above Tesfaye's impressive coif. This was a downright spectacle.
The music wasn't shabby either. Tesfaye's voice is markedly improved from his early days, and so is his stage presence. He checked off the classic "get the crowd involved" boxes, namely pitting the right and left sides of the crowd against each other and inserting the host city's name into the lyrics. These may be silly, cheap tricks, but they work. Tesfaye was charismatic and far less creepy than he was back when his career mirrored that of a basement-dwelling hermit whose real life pales in comparison to his online persona. And his three-piece band plowed through the songs with precision and dexterity.
The setlist was heavy on tracks from the last two albums, and considering the percentage of the crowd that sung along, clutched their chests or turned up to those radio hits, that's understandable. Some of it bordered on schmaltzy, with "Real Life" and "Earned It" making an eventual Vegas residency seem almost inevitable. But even that's preferable to an utter lack of onstage swagger.
Tesfaye only performed two songs that were out at the time of his inaugural Coachella show, but that's where his improvement was most noticeable. "The Morning" and "Wicked Games," both from his debut mixtape, appeared back-to-back, relatively unadorned and stripped-down in comparison to the rest of the show. Belting those songs' soaring hooks that first appeared shrouded in digital reverb, Tesfaye showed just how far he's come.
All photos by Thomas Teal.