Revolution, Fort Lauderdale
May 1, 2012
Better than: Paying for an hour of the watered-down dance-pop that's mostly passing for current R&B.
Last night's local performance by the Weeknd, his first in the area and a stop on his inaugural tour, served as a lesson in wise music business practices circa 2012. Abel Tesfaye, the 22-year-old Torontonian who writes and performs under that stage name, is a '90s baby for whom social, digital sharing is a fact of life. His command of the internet as a promotional tool has clearly paid off, both figuratively and literally.
Last year, he self-released three stunningly complete-sounding albums of future soul in quick succession -- House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. All of these appeared as free downloads, quickly spreading across Tumblr, Twitter, Soundcloud, YouTube, and pretty much everywhere else that hosts content. Sure in the old model, that was thousands of dollars lost in album sales.
But here's how it translated into real-life yesterday: a sold-out show packed by fervent fans who paid $32 plus fees for the privilege of entering and some an additional $25 just to skip ahead through the massive general-admission entry line. Many of these fans were already sporting merchandise for various Weeknd projects and affiliations, including that of OVO, his mentor, Drake's, crew. Throughout the whole thing, these fans were clearly videotaping, Instagram-uploading, Tweeting, and doing everything else to basically advertise future Weeknd product for free.
Of course, that last bit would all fall apart if the product the fans were happily promoting didn't measure up. This is not the case with Tesfaye, whose utter flaunting of the rules, both commercial and musical, of his genre has worked well in his favor. Where he excels is in creating a complete aesthetic -- one that's equally celebratory and self-loathing, louche and longing, exultant and existential. To be honest, it's one that would have worked better much later at night and probably better in Miami, whose brand of faux-glamorous seediness falls better in line with Tesfaye's vibe. (Seems he thought so too.)
In all of his songs, he seems to be considering the comedown as he's still buzzing on the high, something heightened by the sense of creeping dread created by the backing music's crescendos and stutters. (It seemed that some of his fans may have taken that content too literally for 9 p.m. on a Tuesday -- I witnessed not one, not two, but three very early 20-somethings collapse around me in the span of an hour. Well, maybe it was the body heat.)
The Weeknd sound last night was a little warmer than that on his albums, thanks to a three-piece backing band featuring moody solos and chunky distortion by a curly-maned guy identified just as Paul. But the songs never approached anything close to poppy, and yet, from the first notes of opening selection "High for This," the crowd boosted Tesfaye's singing with its own mass rendition of every single word. Tesfaye held his own against this, surprisingly hitting the frequent falsettos in songs like the Michael Jackson-esque "D.D."
By the end of the set, his voice was finally showing signs of fatigue, which was a little disappointing, because that's when he scheduled some of his best songs, like the twofer "House of Balloons/Glass Tables."
Still, with so many supposed "soulful" singers relying on backing tracks and other trickery, Tesfaye deserves an A for effort -- and for structuring his set exactly as he damned well pleased. That meant a good chunk in the middle of slow, almost plodding, turgidly emotional fare like the gloomy "Montreal" or the gloomier "The Knowing."
To compare him to his mentor, Drake, there was all of the introspective, coolly lit onstage angst of a Drizzy show but none of the sudden snapping back into radio anthems. It will be interesting to see if and when Tesfaye will be made to get a little happy and slap a rapper on a track for his major-label debut.
All of this added up to a performance that, if not completely yet polished, refreshed with its naked realness. Still, there remains one major complaint: The entire actual concert part of the evening clocked in at a neat, exact hour, including an "encore." With no opening act, that equaled out to a relatively steep dollars-per-entertainment-hour rate. But maybe that was another byproduct of Tefaye's business model -- fans perhaps can't have their free download cake and costly, involved tours by the performers too.
Personal bias: My sleeping schedule is totally screwed up, and I think this predisposes me to liking the Weeknd's sound.
The crowd: The sneakerhead/swag/pretty-girl corner of Tumblr come to life.
Overhead in the crowd: "A-BEL! A-BEL! A-BEL! I don't care, I'm hot as fuck! A-BEL! A-BEL! A-BEL!" -- an overheated bro.
Overheard in the crowd, part two: [sound of girl weeping as she picked her way through the masses]
By the way: Since we're betting fans of both of these acts overlap, Frank Ocean is also performing at Revolution, on May 23. If you're reading this past 10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 2, then tickets are already on sale, so act fast if they're still available.
-"High for This"
-"D.D."/"The Birds Pt. 1"
-"The Party & the After Party"
-"House of Balloons/Glass Tables"
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