“Los Angeles: I want to hear you scream!” Those were the first words from the stage to cut through the night air, already thick with the sensation of magic and the breath of countless bodies. All around us, palm trees jutted out from the uneven grass and clawed up through the pink, then purple, then deep sea blue of the Hollywood night, reaching for the glorious white gold supermoon that hovered above us all, watching. We were gathered in hundreds, thousands, crowded around the stage, sprawled out on blankets further away, or spinning in graves. The living and the dead looked on as history was made right before us all. Well, almost made. In the interest of preserving a fraction of bloggeristic integrity, I’m forced to admit that The Weeknd and his ragtag band of guys who responded to the ad for open auditions that he posted on Facebook a few months ago had a bit of a rough start on Cinco de Mayo at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery stage, despite the crowd’s unfailing enthusiasm. ’s voice was clearly not initially properly warmed up for the absolute vocal gymnastics required of him on many of his songs. The first third or half or so of the concert dealt heavily in partial tracks and mid-song transitions, a performance choice that seemed intended to help simulate and propagate the mixtape vibe surrounding the singer’s online releases, but which ultimately led to unusual and disappointing shortenings of several pieces, including a downright awkward transition from a capable cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty
Diana” into The Weeknd’s own “The Birds Part 1” (which was itself chopped into a bizarre, half-length version) right at the point of the chorus, leaving much of the audience to begin singing along to a song that they were clearly feeling but which was no longer happening. And the mix job was a muddy mess of bass and drums, a problem that never really got corrected at any point in the show, leaving the audience to fight to hear the voice of the singer that they’d paid to see and rendering the guitar and samples nearly
inaudible for much of the concert. One can hardly blame The Weeknd for his harried (though clearly enthusiastic) opening on Saturday. After all, his rise to a sold-out international tour has been one strapped to a rocket headed straight for the farthest reaches of the stars and one that hasn’t left any time to take stock, hone a live show or really even begin to grapple with the sudden enormity of his fanbase. A year and a half ago, when The Weeknd first began to release his music straight to YouTube, he was entirely unknown, untested, barely twenty years old. Allegedly, he had never ridden on a plane in his entire life. Since then, the Canadian performer has produced three peerless, lovingly-crafted mixtapes (all of which he has released entirely free to the internet), remixed such acts as Lady GaGa and Florence and the Machine, made multiple guest appearances on a certain wildly popular new hip-hop album, and initiated his first U.S. tour with back-to-back weekend shows at the fabled Coachella festival. Careers like this are often described as “whirlwinds” or as “meteoric,” but it has perhaps been the opposite of those natural disasters: something that begins as a chaotic mess but has left a small, intact empire in its wake. The undeniable turning point in the show came with the surprise appearance of Drake on the stage, and how fitting that this high-profile friend would show up to lend a hand and some sanity in Hollywood of all places. The effect on the audience was immediate and explosive, driving the standing crowds hard up against the stage barriers and into The Weeknd’s arms, in much the same way that Drake’s first Twitter mentions of the artist were responsible for a great deal of his early influx of fans. The Weeknd himself even seemed (adorably) a bit bolstered by sharing the stage with his tireless advocate and collaborator, dancing about and attacking the work of the evening with a renewed vigor and strength of voice. The duo performed their collaborative tracks “Crew Love” and “The Zone” together, and, before vacating, the more veteran Drake asked the audience to “behave” for a moment so that he might ask us to remember: Where were we the first time we heard The Weeknd? I was in my friend Ryan’s car on a nighttime drive to the one bar in our dusty hometown that we ever regularly visit. He had been attempting to sell me on the concept of indie R&B the day before and I had been forced to claim ignorance of the scene, of mixtapes released straight to Tumblr and YouTube and the community that had sprung up around it all. The track he pulled up on his iPod was “Wicked Games,” a sexy, anthemic tale of hard partying and the shame that accompanies it set over an angry electric guitar growl and a cavernously reverberated beat. The song’s ominously downtempo confessional tone was a mirror to the crystal-clear desert night outside of the car’s passenger window, and I realized immediately that, regardless of personal taste, age or place, I was hearing the zeitgeist come right through the car speakers. In keeping with the magical theme of the evening, The Weeknd is like the result of a perfect conjuration performed with a drop of Jamie xx’s blood, a fragment of a broken copy of Thank Me Later and a lock of Michael Jackson’s hair. Nothing is outside of his musical palette; he constructs his songs with synth, guitars and samples from indie rock, new wave and ‘90s R&B, building a moody sound that is at once immediately identifiable and yet never feels same-y. His lyrics have all the sex, drugs and swagger of the top 40 hip-hop scene but with a vulnerability and a critical eye that are all his own. He has never sold a single song under his own name, instead building his entire fame and career by giving his music away, validating a generation of listeners and musicians who claim that the record label establishment doesn’t work and that the audiences will find a way to support the artists who deserve it. He is the perfect symbol of post-modernism and post-label music industry all at once. After Drake left the stage, The Weeknd took a moment to collect himself. “This doesn’t feel like a gig,” he said. “It feels like a celebration.” And that it was. It was a celebration of a rise from nothing to stardom. It was a celebration of good music and a system that works. The remainder of the show felt both tight and intimate, with Abel delivering skilled but appropriately restrained (full length) renditions of some of his more soulful material, including “The Party & The After Party,” “The Morning,” “Outside,” and “The Knowing.” The group closed the main set with an unbelievably heavy performance of House of Balloons’ two-part title track, but it was after the very brief encore break that The Weeknd unveiled his second surprise of the evening to us: a beautifully desperate version of “Wicked Games” performed solely with acoustic guitar accompaniment. It was a moving, perfect bookend to the journey that had taken me up to that moment. And as the guitarist retreated off the stage during the song’s closing moments, we were left alone with The Weeknd
and the dead. I joined the others in giving him the scream he had asked for.