The Weeknd Rexall Place, Edmonton AB, November 30

The Weeknd Rexall Place, Edmonton AB, November 30
Photo: Dana Zuk
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Hearing the opening guitar chords of "Real Life," chords that sound triumphant even as they hint towards melancholy, you can't help but think about the trajectory the Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, has undergone over the past few years. Once a darling indie R&B enigma, now a superstar gunning for MJ's throne on an arena tour backing a new album with several Billboard-charting hits, it's only fitting the first song is a massive one, all about re-introducing his loner persona in widescreen.

The last time the Weeknd played Edmonton was just after the release of Trilogy, playing the Edmonton Events Centre. The jump to Rexall Place is a sizeable one, but Tesfaye has been working towards it, and based on last night's (November 30) show, he was ready. With an intense backup band, a behemoth display of LED lights, hanging cubes that floated above the stage and pyro (used to glorious effect during "The Hills") he's come a long way since his reclusive days in Toronto.
 
The centerpiece was Tesfaye's voice, rich, supple and totally under his control. He's no soul man in the traditional sense, but his lithe tenor held its own for the entire concert, refusing to falter and overpowering everything — even the bass-heavy mix that rattled Rexall Place's very seats. While he still likes to play the detached loner — spending several songs singing behind or on top of the display of lights and keeping his banter low — he has become a charismatic performer, moving about the stage with ease and goading the Edmonton crowd to sing along in a way that didn't seem at all forced.
 
It probably helps matters he has the right album to tour with. Beauty Behind The Madness dominated the proceedings for the night — he performed all 14 tracks. It's an album that succeeds in merging Tesfaye's desire for pop stardom with his brooding R&B persona, and it worked especially well in the live context. Thanks to his excellent backing band, even the chilliest songs were transformed into massive bangers for the Rexall crowd, who sang along to every word Tesfaye crooned.
 
Songs such as "Prisoner" and "Often" didn't lose the ominous atmosphere of his earlier work, but they've got a weight that the songs played from Trilogy and Kiss Land, among others, unfortunately can't muster. As thrilling it is to hear "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls" or watch Tesfaye command an entire arena to sway on command to a Beach House sample, that otherworldly murkiness, cast all in shades of black, white and grey is nowhere present on the new material. That's a great thing.

It all came together for "The Hills," a song Tesfaye teased out before the loud guitar chords made their opening. When the dramatic chorus hit (along with the pyro), the Weeknd's transformation into R&B superstar was clearer than it had been all night. He returned to perform a stripped-down rendition of "Wicked Games," finding himself flanked by a sea of white light, emanating from thousands of cell phones as their owners sang along: "So tell me you love me, only for tonight."
 
It was an overwhelming display of white light, but it was still the stage from which the brightest light was shining. That's right: Tesfaye's a star.