‘The Weeknd: Live At Sofi Stadium’ Finds The Singer Alone At Center Stage
Since making his name on mixtapes and the internet, singer-songwriter The Weeknd has risen to stardom. That the Ethiopian-Canadian performer, born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, has achieved this by constantly pushing the boundaries of his music and art, confounding expectations and occasionally infuriating audiences, is a good thing. The new concert film, The Weeknd: Live at Sophie Stadiumwhich premieres Saturday, February 25 at 8 p.m., finds him almost single-handedly holding the attention of an adoring arena of fans for well over an hour, cementing his status as the new king of (after- hip hop retro-futuristic new -cold wave alternative R&B) Pop.
In the music documentary Dig!, a parade of talking heads describe The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s postmodern instrumental garage rock as wrapped in the trappings of the past but sounding entirely new. The same could be said for The Weeknd, whose music increasingly draws on the 1980s for inspiration, whether it’s the throbbing synths of John Carpenter’s horror soundtracks or drum beats that sound like they’ve been stung from an Atari video game. At the same time, The Weeknd is of hip hop and embodies the ethos of a microphone. Pacing back and forth on a court-length performance ramp, he reminds one more of an MC than a modern pop star, no matter how sensitively he screams.
Live at Sofi Stadium filmed at the final show of the first leg of The Weeknd’s After Hours til Dawn Tour. Just months ago, on November 27, 2022, in Los Angeles, the show was rescheduled from two months earlier when The Weeknd abruptly left the stage mid-set after losing his voice. Although the dark backdrops – which seem like an amalgamation of every dystopian visual trope – the chill wave sounds and his lyrical obsessions about drug use and dirty sex speak to the dark corners of the soul, The Weeknd certainly seems to have plenty of fun. Somewhere behind the plywood facades of post-apocalyptic Toronto, unseen prop musicians add guitar licks and keyboards, while a chorus of red-robed dancers strike enigmatic poses that have more in common with performance art than choreography.#
The Weeknd has never been afraid to mess with his image and appearance, in recent years wearing facial prosthetics or special effects makeup. In the first two songs he wears a mask that covers his entire face, equal parts BDSM and The The Phantom of the Opera. He later ditches it, along with the long trench coat he first appeared in, performing the rest of the set in what looks like comfortable, loose combat gear. A giant moon hangs over one side of the stadium, changing colors from kinky red to cocaine white to arctic blue, but the entire concert set is stripped bare. The Weeknd somehow makes the 70,000 plus venue feel like an underground concert venue next to the J train.
During the hour and a half performance, The Weeknd runs through every hit in his catalog and then some. Since his first album was released in 2013, he certainly has a lot of hits. The typical tour set had almost 30 songs. Some songs are presented in a clipped or rushed form, especially the early numbers, making it seem like he prefers his newer material. It’s something you’d see a classic rock band do, or something you’d see in an old school R&B revue. If the concert goes on for a while, the crowd makes it.
Between songs, The Weeknd wastes no time in small talk. His stage banter is limited to canned proclamations such as: “I love you Los Angeles. Thank you very much. This is the last show and I think it’s the best fucking show of the entire tour!” He sounds like James Hetfield of Metallica. His biggest hits inspire huge sing-alongs, with the crowd holding their phones aloft in approval. Blue light fills the stadium and on the stands they look like lost robots trying to reach their avatar on stage.
You’re not headlining the Super Bowl halftime show if you’re not already a big cheese. Yet, Live at Sophie’s stadium it feels like a victory lap. If The Weeknd’s vocals are as lively as they come, it’s also an impressive display of his gifts as a singer. Able to shift gears from a tremulous falsetto to high passages with laser-like precision, he may remind one of past masters, but exists in a singularity of his own invention. The second leg of the After Hours til Dawn tour kicks off this June with dates in Europe throughout the summer and the finale wrapping up in South America this fall.
Benjamin H. Smith is a writer, producer and musician based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.