“Hey, man. Do you like the Weeknd?”
It seemed like the most rhetorical question imaginable, considering I’d been among the few hundred people lined up early at the gate of the Hollywood Forever waiting to get into the hottest show of the L.A. 2012 spring concert season.
The guy asking the question was in his early twenties at best, clutching a half-empty case of beer and visibly drunk. With an equally inebriated friend in tow, they’d just crashed to the front of the mob when the gate opened. He looked at me in earnest, waiting for my reply. When I just nodded, he smiled broadly.
“Then let’s go!” He yelled as he joined a clutch of people making their way through the gate and sprinting towards the stage on the other side of the cemetery. An exasperated security guard was left yelling at the people flying past her to please stop running in a cemetery already.
That kind of unbridled energy has been surrounding 22-year-old Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye, who goes by the recording moniker the Weeknd, for more than a year. Since the free online release of his debut album “House of Balloons” last March, a seemingly instant legion of fans assembled for his dark and murky take on R&B. Loaded with references to gratuitous drug use and wanton, innocence-killing sex (good girls gone bad is a recurring theme), songs like “High For This” and the Siouxsie and the Banshees-sampling title track were fast online hits.
Going on to release two more free albums online (“Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence”) before the end of 2011, the Weeknd’s public profile continued to grow exponentially through an alliance with fellow Toronto native Drake, culminating in the smash single collaboration “Crew Love” on Drake’s “Take Care” album.
With only a handful of shows under their collective belt, the live version of the Weeknd (Tesfaye recruited the musicians online, natch) performed an uneven but enthusiastically received Coachella set that found the huge audience singing most of the songs word for word. Without a single conventional release to their name, the Weeknd emerged as one of the festival’s most buzzed-about acts. (A dubious sound-alike cover version of “High For This” popped up on various online music stores last month).
That buzz translated to an instantaneous sell-out when the Weeknd announced a local show at the recently revived Music Box on Hollywood Blvd. With ticket demand driving resale prices into the hundreds of dollars, a quickly added last-minute date at the Hollywood Forever cemetery sold out just as fast, with the extra cache of being an outdoor Cinco de Mayo show where the likes of Tyrone Power and Rudolph Valentino rest in eternal peace. (According to Hollywood Forever’s Jay Boileau by phone, the cemetery show sold approximately 3000 tickets, “give or take about 20.”)
Taking the stage around 9 p.m. with the “super moon” looming in the background, the Weeknd opened the show with a bombastic take on “High For This.” From that first song, it was quickly evident that the vocal issues of the Coachella show had been readily addressed. Tesfaye and the band confidently cruised through an impassioned, fan-pleasing set of tracks from all three albums. Much like the Coachella set, songs “The Morning” and “Gone” turned into massive audience sing-a-longs, with a large number of the female-heavy crowd proudly sporting bootleg versions of the Weeknd’s signature “XO” logo on shirts, hats and even skin.
The rumors of a Drake appearance came to fruition when the rapper came onstage for songs “Crew Love” and "The Zone," sending the stunned crowd into a picture-snapping frenzy (Drake had surprised some fans at the front of the line waiting to get into the show upon his arrival for soundcheck earlier in the day).
As the show progressed, the Weeknd’s obvious debt to the ‘90s “trip-hop” sound of acts such as Portishead and Massive Attack became even more readily apparent. While Tesfaye tipped his hand with a pre-show soundtrack featuring both of those bands, the band’s dynamic approach to goth-tinged hip-hop mixed with sexed-up and drugged-out R&B all but references Massive Attack’s legendary “Mezzanine” album by name.
It’s a clever and arguably calculated sound the Weeknd has conceived, as much driven by a mysterious persona and kinky sex allusions as haunting melodies and bedroom beats. But it works, and the influence is already being felt in the mainstream (see the Diplo-produced and Weeknd-ish new Usher single, “Climax,” for proof).
While only time will reveal how long Tesfaye can maintain this stratospheric trajectory, his youthful and fervent audience is more than down for the cause. As of right now, the Weeknd is where it’s at, and quite possibly where it’s going.