Review: The Weeknd seduces Tampa with smoldering Straz Center concert
Tampa's Straz Center for the Performing Arts promoted Thursday’s concert by The Weeknd with a tingly, provocative caveat:
“Warning: this show is for mature audiences.”
No freaking kidding. That much was obvious at the merch booth, where the Canadian R&B dynamo born Abel Tesfaye was handing out free condoms branded with the name of The Weeknd’s new album, Kiss Land. And that was before the explicit lesbian sex show — but we’ll get to that in a minute.
For a steamy 90 minutes at the Straz, bras flew and hipsters macked to a soundtrack of The Weeknd’s smoldering, synth-laden jams and the delirious squeals of 2,047 grown-ass women (okay, more than a few came from us guys).
But for all of Tesfaye’s X-rated intimations, this concert, and the tour as a whole, seem to indicate he’s pushing for mainstream acceptance. After years of gushing love from the indie-music blogosphere, Kiss Land just debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and on Thursday, it was announced he’ll have not one but two songs on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (That’s funny, we don’t remember where in the book Katniss and Peeta engage in a night of steamy, drug-fueled lovemaking. Maybe we better re-read it.)
More important, though, is the simple fact that Tesfaye is actually walking and singing among us, performing in Central Florida for the second time in less than a year. The mysterious singer may not be granting many interviews these days, but at least he’s showing his face in publicity photos. He’s even popping up on television — earlier this month, he made his American TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He is letting us in.
With an album like Kiss Land, he has every right to. Though he dipped heavily into his Trilogy trilogy of mixtapes (in particular 2011’s House of Balloons) on Thursday, whenever Tesfaye performed a song from Kiss Land, the stage lit up like a roman candle with neon scenes reminiscent of red-light Tokyo. Early on it came in tommy-gun blasts during Belong To The World and through irresistibly discordant synthesizers on The Town. In a rare interview with Complex magazine this summer, Tesfaye compared parts of Kiss Land to Phil Collins, and you could definitely hear a bit of industrial In The Air Tonight darkness on Pretty.
Songs melted one into the next, as they do on The Weeknd’s mixtapes; the thrusty disco of House of Balloons gave way to the hypnotic, industrial throb of Glass Table Girls, with fans screaming lyrics throughout. At times he dropped his experimental bent for something that vaguely resembled more traditional R&B, such as the loping '90s groove of Loft Music and the torch-song blues of Wicked Games. Tesfaye’s simmering tenor is most frequently compared to that of Michael Jackson, and on the '80s-style funk jam Wanderlust, he somehow transcended even that lofty comp; he was equal parts MJ, Phillip Bailey and Prince.
Tesfaye’s angsty, confessional songs fit his stage presence, which brims with barely constrained sexual tension, as opposed to a singer like Miguel, whose act is all over-the-top machismo. But that’s not to say The Weeknd was passionless — he bounced and pounced and made sweet pillow talk to the crowd, promising, in so many words, to give the crowd three — eh, go ahead, make it four — aural orgasms by the end of High For This. (Mercy!)
Ah, yes: The sex. Never mind the moral ambiguity of Blurred Lines — with The Weeknd, sex while high on dope and drink is lyrically par for the course. “Trust me girl, you gotta be high for this,” he crooned on High For This. Elsewhere he romanced a stripper on Wicked Games and propositioned an orgy on The Party & The After Party. And then there was Kiss Land’s ominous title track, during which a web of video screens behind Tesfaye played out a graphic love scene between two lingerie-clad, and occasionally topless, women. Some fans may have found it uncomfortable; others probably saw it as inspiration to break out those new free condoms.
Either way, it was definitely for mature audiences only. But if The Weeknd has his way, it may soon be for everyone.
Los Angeles singer Banks had the enviable/unenviable task of opening the sexually charged evening. The stage lighting wasn’t ideal to get the crowd on her side – Banks was bathed in dim violet, while the rest of the house was bright enough to read by – but her girl-next-door vulnerability fit her sultry, trip-hop-influenced bedroom R&B, especially on the slow-burning Change and a bluesy, stripped-down cover of Lauryn Hill’s Ex-Factor. Dramatic closer Waiting Game, with its ghostly piano and thick, funereal drumbeat, had Banks stomping her way around the stage and the crowd on its feet by the end.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*