Published Oct 18, 2013Three sold-out nights at the legendary and venerable Massey Hall for an artist no one even heard about less than three years ago? Abel Tesfaye, not Drake, should be the one with a "Started From The Bottom" anthem.
Over the span of three or four years, the Weeknd's career progression has felt unorthodox, ad hoc, and fortuitous — from the mysterious trio of mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence) first launched in 2011 to latest full length album Kiss Land. It's been a unique and enchanted journey, one that's seen him grow from being an unknown quantity to playing progressively larger venues in his own hometown.
"From Mod Club, to Sound Academy, to Massey Hall," the Weeknd so accurately pointed out to a full house last night, with the obvious subtext being that not many local artists doing what Tesfaye does — widely described as progressive R&B, or by the unwieldy portmanteau known as PBR&B — can say that. In terms of giving feature interviews or being concerned about cover stories — earned media — he hasn't so much as given the traditional media machine the middle finger as he's seemingly never even given it a serious thought. What has been earned, however, is a devoted XO fanbase, an intriguing discography, and a flourishing stage presence that's only gotten more polished over time.
Not bad for a kid from Scarborough.
While the lush Kiss Land hasn't been as raved about compared to the confessional angst of the mixtape trilogy, Tesfaye passionately elevated the dysphoric oeuvre within the live context. Opening act BANKS primed the crowd, putting forth an understated yet impactful performance. The L.A.-based singer-songwriter performed cuts from her compelling London EP before ending the short set with one-two punch of hit "Waiting Game" and a surprisingly satisfying cover of Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor."
By the time he got on stage — decked in nearly all black gear — Tesfaye looked completely cool and comfortable for someone doing the first night of three shows. Aesthetically, the stage juxtaposed minimalism (just Tesfaye in front, two guitarists and a drummer in the background) with several ostentatious large video screens splashed with Kiss Land's Asian kitsch (neon Chinatown signage, Japanese commercial-inspired interstitials and anime motifs).
He's clearly stepped up his stage presence game, a huge change from his initial stage efforts where he was nervous and looked uneasy in the spotlight. The only thing that threatened to sink the Weeknd's smoldering tenor on this night was the audio distortion during the many volume spikes during the approximately 80 minute set, but even that wasn't truly an issue as he kicked things off with the darkly chilling "Belong to the World" and slinky "What You Need."
"The Party & The After Party" and "High For This" were faithful renditions, while the rapid-fire "Live For" and ironic sing-along number "Crew Love" had the crowd waiting for a Drake appearance that never came. "Wanderlust" is a standout on Kiss Land and was definitely a standout at Massey, with Tesfaye crooning in front of a cutesy anime backdrop on screen.
Overall, Tesfaye delivered a tight, smoldering, and professional set. He closed things out with "Wicked Games," seductively asking the crowd: "Can I get sexy for you Toronto? Can I get on top of you Toronto?" They were a pair of rhetorical questions; Tesfaye no longer needs anyone's approval.