In the front rows of the Weeknd's headlining show at the Greek Theatre on Monday, a professional-grade photographer prowled the aisles jotting notes and taking close-up photos of – exclusively - beautiful young women.
A concert photographer who got a bit distracted? A Mötley Crüe-style girl procurement operation for an after-party? Who knew the real reason why he was there. But he definitely added to the predatory, voyeuristic vibe of the Weeknd's gripping live show.
Monday's set (the first of a two-night Greek stand) was a showcase for vocalist Abel Tesfaye's new album, "Kiss Land," and the arrival of an unlikely major R&B star. What began as a moody, information-scare Internet project has grown into a defining ethic of R&B today – sweet falsettos telling tales of emotionally firebombed group sex and drug binges. "Kiss Land" by comparison lets in a little light – thousand-dollar dimmer switches over a hotel dresser covered in cocaine dust, but still. Monday's show found a young man learning how to be a pop star while remaining R&B's Iago.
For a guy who made it a priority to hide his name and face until well into the Weeknd's 2011 ascent, Tesfaye has taken to the big-stage spotlight. Throughout his hour-and-a-half set, he extolled California, introduced his three-piece backing band by name and, at the big moments, solicited the crowd in arm waving and lighter hoisting. All totally typical pop star moves, but not what you'd expect from a guy whose breakout single was about how condoms harsh his ecstasy sex.
Tesfaye's been hanging out with Drake and Juicy J, so maybe he's absorbed a bit of their braggadocio. But it all poses a particular challenge – how do you maintain that ethereal, hazy terror on a chart-topping album and two shows at a 6,000-seat venue?
With that absolutely one-of-a-kind voice. On new cuts like "Love in the Sky" and "Professional," he vaulted from an angry, sinewy midrange to top notes unsettling in their purity and beauty. Beneath it, the music could stutter and seize (as on the Portishead-riffing "Belong to the World," a highlight of "Kiss Land") or wash over in sample-soaked ennui on "What You Need" and "The Morning."
Tesfaye and his producers use a lot of '80s-decadence signifiers, such as "Top Gun" guitar lines and reverbed drums – to evoke that era's moral vacancy. On record they're delicate background gestures, but live on Monday his band inverted the formula, putting Tesfaye's vocals and crunchy live instrumentation in the front of the mix.
It made for a generally convincing big-room sound and complemented the sad-eyed neon of the Weeknd's vintage-Tokyo stage motif. But the Weeknd's power is in its reserve and seductive sonic world – and there are so many other interesting ways to present Tesfaye's voice than just in front of a traditional rock band.
Like, say, in front of a five-minute looped montage of lesbian porn? The … forthright ... video art behind the Weeknd's mission-statement take on "Kiss Land" was probably a first for the Greek (and also a heck of a conversation-starter for any first dates in the crowd). But it's to the song's credit that its hooks about the transformative, dark allure of fame still resonated despite all of the, well, adjacent distractions.
But Tesfaye had an even better move on "Pretty," the tenderest and most truly felt song in his catalog. A side-stage mounted camera captured Tesfaye looking straight into it, staring down the audience on a half-dozen mounted screens. His 23-year-old face in plain, sincere view, he promised a woman that "You will never feel so pretty / and you will never feel this beautiful / When I make it there."
Ladies probably should know better than to trust a line like that from the Weeknd by now. But for one sense-surrendering minute, you could almost believe him.