Anticipation was at fever pitch on Friday night, as The Weeknd made his first ever performance in the midlands with a show at Birmingham’s HMV Institute. It’s been a steady two years of ascension for Abel Tesfaye, who after initially surrounding himself in mystery and enigma, has gone from strength to strength in the way he handles the pressures of mainstream success, as well as transferring his excellent recorded output into a live setting. As Abel points out halfway through the show, this is the last chance we’re going to get to see him and his band in such an intimate venue, adding a sentimental vibe to a crowd who have been waiting outside in the snow, some as early as 8am. (Sleeping bags outside the venue were also spotted, although it’s unclear as to whether their inhabitants actually survived the night, probably not.) So, an intimate venue, a pumped up Tesfaye and a crowd eager for their first experience of a Weeknd live show, does it deliver?
The band appear first on stage, soon followed by Tesfaye and they break into The Smiths sampling ‘Enemy’, the audience obviously goes berserk, mobile phones illuminate the floor and it’s obvious that these people have had a long, strenuous wait for this exact moment. On his first European appearance at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival last year, Tesfaye still seemed unsure of himself as a performer, almost as if he was trying to work out his own identity away from the shadows he had cast over himself early in his career. None of this is evident tonight, as he navigates the stage with all the gusto and showmanship of a man much older than just 23. The performance levels really serve to enhance how the music sounds and the cross-genre appeal of The Weeknd’s output really comes to the fore as chorus-heavy, shout along tracks like the seminal ‘High For This’ and ‘The Morning’ take on a rockier edge than one would ever expect at what is essentially an R&B show.
The Weeknd has made some good friends in the industry, which means it’s only right to fit in his featured verses from Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Remember You’, Juicy J’s ‘One of Those Nights’ and Drake’s ‘Crew Love’. What impresses most about these inclusions is that they don’t feel incongruous to the tone of The Weeknd’s own music. They fit in seamlessly with the rest of the setlist and are received with just as much admiration. The midway point arrives with ‘House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls’, one of the standout tracks from the trilogy of mixtapes originally released in 2011. The Siouxsie & the Banshees sample rings out enormously around the room and the crowd reacts wildly to the first real party tune of the night. The second half of the track takes on a gritty, drug inhabited edge, tonally shifting towards darker territory and there is a real sense of atmosphere banding around the venue.
The show really picks up momentum as it heads towards the climax. An epic sounding offering of ‘The Knowing’ gets the crowd swooning and Tesfaye’s voice has never sounded better, soaring over the enormous noise made by his band. ‘Crew Love’ and ‘Loft Music’ are segued by an incredible drum fill that takes the whole room by surprise. Clearly real care has been taken into crafting this set and the attention to detail exhibited in some of the transitions is highly amicable. It seems like everyone in there knows every word to ‘Loft Music’, in fact it seems like everyone in there knows every word to every song played tonight (this Raccoon included). A few months back The Weeknd made his first ever TV appearance on Jools Holland with ‘Wicked Games’ and this is what closes the main set tonight. Live is where this track really shows its strengths, the desperation of the lyrics and ethereal melodies work towards a crescendo that explodes into life, displaying the prowess of a singer growing in confidence as well as a band entirely devoted to the catalogue they’ve adopted for the stage.
The encore consists of standout tracks from the final part of the trilogy ‘Echoes of Silence’. ‘Montreal’ opens with a verse in French, which in no way deters every word being sung back at Tesfaye. Personal favourite ‘Outside’ then rounds off proceedings, a slow jam packed with lust, melancholy and downright misogyny that The Weeknd is loved for. Tonight has cemented The Weeknd into a position as a genuine performer, capable of transforming the most insular recorded output into material ready to share with thousands from a stage. Nobody there wants the show to end, but when it does, they all know they’ve seen something special.
High For This
One of Those Nights
House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls
The Birds Pt.1
The Party & The After Party