Only one song by The Weeknd has been anything like a hit: "Crew Love," off Drake's hugely popular Take Care. Yet they — well, he, a performer/producer from Toronto named Abel Tesfaye — nevertheless headlined a $32-a-ticket show with no opening act and no merchandise in sight at the act's first-ever Philly performance. The air filled with iPhones when Diddy was spotted in the wings. The TLA crowd, about three men to every woman, knew every word of "Crew Love" on Sunday night. They didn't do badly with the mysterious R&B singer's three (!) 2011 "mixtape" bows, either. The audience sang in counterpoint on the bare-bones encore "Wicked Games" and brought to life the cutup "whoa" breaks in the Siouxsie Sioux-sampling "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls." Without the benefit of his production work on the recordings, Tesfaye's dirtier lyrics lost some of their authentic punch. Still, the crowd sang back to him his filthiest scenarios while couples swayed. "I've got Philadelphia speaking French," the Toronto-based Tesfaye claimed excitedly before launching into "Montreal," one of his smoother ventures.
The Weeknd is best explained if you imagine a Michael Jackson who lived to survive his awful exploits and sing about them, inventing trip-hop in the process. Between the stellar opening of "High for This" and "The Birds Part 1," it sounded as if the denim-vested singer mumbled a few bars of "Dirty Diana."
Yet his Jackson-inspired melodramas aren't very pop. They're all lurchingly slow and frosted with dubstep, bassy, with timpani and snares hissing like shorted-out cable. They uncoil and surge like arena rock: Several tunes, such as the astounding "The Party & The After Party," push past seven minutes. But the set list (only the teased "What You Need" was missed) was near-immaculate, with some tunes shortened without mess — as in a neatly chopped three whole minutes from "Loft Music."
The show was done before 10 p.m. What, no afterparty? A live band, drummer especially, didn't appear to be using electronics even though they obviously were, while Tesfaye stalked the stage, gripped his mic stand, and emoted like a pro.
By the time he reentered with an acoustic guitarist to sign off with a scorching "Wicked Games," it was hard to believe he's not yet a star. Then we remembered the lyrics.