I often express my belief that music is inextricably linked to place: the folk concert I reviewed recently in Winnipeg displayed an intimate relationship with the northern Canadian wilderness. Abel Tesfaye's project The Weeknd came out of a very different Canada, that of urban Toronto, and is also influenced by his ancestral home of Ethiopia. Yet, last night illustrated the void that can emerge when music is divorced from place. This tour, and his first full album Kissland, is about the anonymity of life as a star. The set had a Japanese theme, but this was the Tokyo of Lost in Translation, marred by the soullessness of modern business travel where pleasures are transient and artificial. As he sings on the title track: “I went from starting at the same four walls for 21 years to seeing the whole world in just 12 months.” Yet, it's all too clear that the world of drugs and pornography he's been immersed as a global performer is superficial and unfulfilling.
Music is also strongly connected with time, and here with the trajectory of Abel's career. When I witnessed one of his first public performances at Coachella in 2012, he appeared uncertain and unpolished on stage. By March this year, he'd matured into a charismatic performer, yet was still humble and seemingly surprised by the attention. Now, whilst appreciative of his fans, he's self aware, performing to a bank of screens displaying his own image. Abel slightly presumptively promised to tour in the UK every year from now on. The act itself had seemingly been polished by the advisors at his label, being simplified in the pursuit of greater immediacy. This sanitisation applied even to the re-arranged group of songs from his earlier Trilogy in the middle of last night's 90 minute set. I missed the original sense of vulnerability and unpredictability, that live music frisson.
The emotional void was confirmed by comparison to the first support act, Banks from LA, whose fresh performance was at times less secure, but always more spontaneous in feel. Jillian Banks has only just emerged into the spotlight, and I'd urge you to investigate her London EP. As she remarked last night, before she joined The Weeknd on tour this year, she'd been making music in her bedroom. Her voice is deep and sultry, and blends singer songwriter soul with contemporary electronics. Her feminist message also provided a necessary counterpoint to Abel's chauvinistic lyrics. She moved me far more than the other support act, the British producer Zane Lowe whose energy and enthusiasm was no compensation for his unsubtle bombast. He leant heavily on the visual impact of strobe lighting, but the fast pace seemed at odds with the more tender elements of The Weeknd's work.
Place central to the live music experience in relation to the venue too: the mid-sized Apollo is not my favourite in Manchester, and lacked the intimacy of The Ritz where I saw Abel in that performance of this year. The sophisticated visual presentation utilised elaborate lighting and video projection, and his three piece backing band was confined to a recess at the back of the stage to provide a larger dance floor for Abel. Yet there were fewer Michael Jackson inspired gyrations and fancy footwork in evidence this time, and seemingly also a dilution of the R&B influences in his music in favour of the homogeneity of EDM. His voice remains a remarkable instrument, supple and pure. Yet, its presence might have been more ghostly and subtle had it not been egotistically placed so far forward in the mix.
Abel is still only 23, and Pitchfork lacked humanity when they said of Kissland that "it's as if he's travelled the world and realised the world revolves around him". He's supporting his friend Drake on a UK tour next spring, and it's clear he has his heart set on headlining stadiums. Once a shadowy figure composing on his laptop, his face is now on the album cover, and his music has the sheen of major label production. Unlike some, I'm still able to accept his messages about money and women as a satire of exploitation, rather than a celebration of such values. Yet important though loyalty is, it may be time for me to move onto new discoveries such as Banks. Just as Abel surprised the world when he emerged with House of Balloons, so it would be foolish to lose touch with such a talent. I hope he may again surprise us by rekindling that early creativity; there's no doubting the charisma within.