He’s nothing if not an enigma, is Abel Tesfaye. In two years, through free online mixtapes, props from established artists and a media silence, communicating only through a twitter feed, he has earned himself the power to exercise complete creative control. A lottery of tickets announced two days before has London’s most clued in scrambling here at short notice to witness this fully packaged mystery man playing one of The Weeknd’s few ever live shows. The venue is the 500 capacity Supper Club near Notting Hill Gate is an ideal venue for a for a mysterious underground artist on the verge of stardom, plush velvet and chrome interior located between loading bays underneath the Westway underpass.
22 years old but seeming much older, Tesfaye takes the stage with full band and backing vocals and as expected his soaring voice orchestrates the mood of the live band, his vulnerable tones on opener ‘Lonely Star’ set against moody minimalism and sharp programmed beats. The minimal vein remains throughout, languid slow jams, machine gun snare and tortured falsetto through ‘The Party’, ‘Loft Music’ and current single ‘Wicked Games’. At times rising out of the druggy atmosphere he’s conceived, his voice becomes clearer, building a faux-stadium rock climax with wailing guitars and splashing cymbals.
On that front, Tesfaye is utterly convincing, maintaining the haunted wails that narrate the despairing sentiment of his mixtapes. If one were to level criticism it would be in the surprise that his sculpted persona is let down by his jovial onstage chatter. He excitedly thanks his band and fans, high fives audience members, it’s a step down from the cool and aloof – more Bieber than Biggie. It shouldn’t matter, but enigmatic characters have all but disappeared from music, either they bare their soul for a little more airtime, or we dig up the dirt on them eventually (Lana?). Every aspect of what he’s done so far has been crafted, he’s given away nothing but the music itself, and part of his appeal has truly been how cool he is so he goofing about seems a little out of character.
The live aspect of The Weeknd as a brand, if you will, is the final piece of the puzzle. What he does from here is anyone’s guess, that he hasn’t recorded a smash single to go with his debut Trilogy album is reassuring. He has the contacts, media attention and musical ability to be a massive RnB star if he wants to. That he hasn’t is fascinating and you can bet that whatever he does do is going to be exceptional.
Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian