“Adaptation,” the first song the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye performed Sunday in the first of two concerts at the Chicago Theatre, contains a sample of the Police’s “Bring on the Night.”In its original incarnation, the song’s protagonist impatiently waits for darkness to fall so that he can wash away the frustrations of the day. In the Weeknd’s telling, it becomes part of a murky confession. A seducer laments the loss of a woman back home. Instead, he’s chosen a life of madness and lies on the road in a thousand beds.
Tesfaye’s reading Sunday suggested another Police song, the stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take.” A huge Big-Brother face on a video screen engulfed Tesfaye and barked the song’s chorus: “She might just be the one.” It sounded like a threat.
It’s not exactly a formula for stardom, but that’s what Tesfaye has achieved in a few short years. A mystery project dubbed the Weeknd released a trio of mix tapes on-line in 2011; Tesfaye gave no interviews, played no concerts and few people even knew what he looked like. The three projects yielded 8 million downloads and a major-label deal that got the 23-year-old Tesfaye into an airplane and out of Toronto for the first time in his young life. His latest album, “Kiss Land,” which debuted at No. 2 on the pop charts, chronicles his misdeeds and obsessions on the road in scandalous detail.
When Tesfaye first appeared in Chicago early last year, he filled a club (Lincoln Hall) but the audience played it cool, not quite sure what to make of an artist who splits the difference between classic R&B seduction songs and something a good deal creepier. But on Sunday, indifference dissolved. Every space in the music created by Tesfaye and a three-piece band was filled by the audience’s screams, and at one point the fans hijacked most of a song (the Drake-Weeknd collaboration “Crew Love”) and sang it themselves.
The Weeknd’s recordings occupy a claustrophobic space, with ghostly atmospherics, muted tones and mutated instrumentation. Tesfaye sang with a high, tremulous sweetness – a fragile, pretty voice saying not-so-pretty things about relationships disfigured by drugs, doubt and unsatisfied desire. At the Chicago Theatre, though, the singer amped up the song’s buried hooks: the machine-gunning Portishead drum sample in “Belong to the World,” the squeaky keyboards in “House of Balloons,” the descending guitar notes in “The Zone.”
With bass, drums and guitar belting out bombast, Tesfaye played cheerleader as much as tortured seducer. He may be the rogue who feels “the loneliness of filling every need,” but on stage he looked like he was orchestrating an orgy. At one point, he played an Asian porn movie while documenting his misadventures on the “Kiss Land” title track. But for anyone paying close attention, the effect was as disturbing as it was celebratory, with nasty keyboard tones terrorizing the party vibe.
Tesfaye is clearly aiming for bigger shows in the mold of his fellow Canadian star Drake, and the next time through Chicago we’re likely to see him in an arena if his career continues on its present trajectory. But beyond the charisma of his cork-screw haired presence, disarming smile and high, tremulous voice, he also offers a complexity that makes him far from a lock to become a mainstream mainstay.
His songs brim with dysfunctional, even despicable, narrators, and even as his show plays with arena clichés, it also undermines them. Upon close examination, there really isn’t a feel-good song in his entire catalog – though the audience reaction suggested otherwise. Tesfaye doesn’t make it easy to like or understand his narrators, and that makes him a fascinating artist. Little wonder he sent everybody home with one final, sobering prescription for a “good time” in “Wicked Games”: “Bring your love baby, I could bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby, I could bring my pain.”
The Weeknd set list Sunday at the Chicago Theatre:
2. Love in the Sky
3. Belong to the World
4. The Town
5. What You Need/Professional
6. House of Balloons /Glass Table Girls
7. Loft Music
8. The Morning
9. Remember You
10. The Zone
11. High for This
12. The Party & The After Party
13. Kiss Land
14. Live For/Crew Love
17. Wicked Games