Tesfaye seemed a bit nervous - not surprising for an artist who initially kept his name a secret, and even now banned cameras from the show. Though finally front and centre, he wore a camouflage jacket and remained strikingly still as if to be as unobtrusive as possible. Still, he confidently opened with High for This, causing the lit-fuse crowd to go off. At times he seemed taken aback by the reception, standing there, mike in both hands, staring out as the crowd sang his words back to him. It was an emotional night, and that came through in his voice, whether weaving through slow jams like The Party and the After Party or (relatively) upbeat romps like House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.
During Wicked Games, the show’s epic peak, arms raising unironic lighters filled the air as his emotion-ravaged voice crooned “Bring your love baby/I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby/I can bring my pain” amidst a roiling rhythm and grinding guitar. The sing-alongs turned his abject loneliness into a communal catharsis. But the edge remained, be it the unrelenting dirtiness of Loft Music or the encore cut The Birds (Part 1) which used martial drums and strobe lights to amplify the implied threat: “Don’t make me make you fall in love.”
On new song Rolling Stone, Tesfaye sings “Baby I got you/Until you’re used to my face/And my mystery fades” which could’ve been his career epitaph if he’d faltered here. Until now, the Weeknd has existed as almost a figment of our collective imaginations, his ascent fuelled by anonymity, his communications coming via Twitter and Tumblr, his music existing only as web-distributed ones and zeroes. He could’ve dissipated like a dotcom bubble. But by bringing his aching digi-laments out of the Internet’s shadows and onto the stage, Tesfaye triumphantly proved that the Weeknd has no end in sight.