ACL Fest 2015: The Weeknd becomes a king of pop before our eyes

The Weeknd performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Sunday, October 11, 2015. (Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
The Weeknd performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Sunday, October 11, 2015. (Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

“I came all the way from New York,” the Weeknd told the Austin City Limits festival holdovers Sunday night. The sudden R&B superstar held court over a turbulent crowd of movers and believers. All the Honda stage headliner could do was verify the merits of his “Saturday Night Live”-musical guest ascent with a dynamo, pyrotechnics-assisted goodbye.

Back at the lawn-chair dividing line, it was a murky swarm of young fans there to sing anthemic ballads like “Tell Your Friends” about drug abuse and explicit sex. But these were mostly bathroom cigarette, temporary-tattoo thrills. For its part the Zilker lawn became an under-18 dance club in terms of scattered grinding, awkward courtship, nihilist escapism, and so much pointing of filming phones at the stage.

Though I’m not sure how the Weeknd himself–born Abel Tesfaye–is doing. The guy has five albums of music under his belt since 2011, but broke through as a national force this summer on the strength of smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face.” His best hour of work is lean, extravagant, distinctly somber, and bleak R&B. He seems to be approaching the demon-laden chunk of his “Behind the Music” documentary: “When I’m f***ed up, that’s the real me” goes the vulnerable hook to “The Hills.”

Couple the relentless output with rampant touring and a confessional new record–August’s “Beauty Behind the Madness”–about “prisoner”-like addictions to vices that often bring terrible consequences, and I’m just glad he gets some time off. The Weeknd told us that this was his last festival engagement of the year on stage. And like the thoughtful gentleman he comes off as live, apologized for the second week in a row about cancelling his 2013 ACL appearance because he had to “call in sick.”

Honestly bro most of these people weren’t rocking with you then. Though underneath his show’s two-story stage exterior (keys, guitar, drum players were mounted above the Weeknd, flickering in red lights) was a set dedicated to 2011’s sample-suite debut mixtape “House of Balloons.” These low-rent jams were ambitious then and here have the space to soar with a big budget: “High For This” opened the set and cleansed the pallet. His synth-heaven, post-Prince guitar odyssey “The Morning” destroyed with its aimless stripper homages. (Touring guitarist Patrick Greenaway was the night’s quiet hero.) And the Weeknd tinkered with the house lights to finish with an arresting belting of “Wicked Games.”

Between these flags on the moon his knack for Michael Jackson-inspired, soaring pop won over casual parents. The hook to “Often” was presented as a technically nonsensical but fun new line of “ask me how many times I come to Texas, I say ‘Austin.'” His dialed-in cover of Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” was the most impressive karaoke performance you’ll see in town outside of Ego’s. And last year’s “Love Me Harder,” a Weeknd feature for Arianna Grande, flickered and pounded.

“I go by the name of the Weeknd and this is my story,” he said. It was ACL’s most captivating.

Author: Ramon Ramirez

Ramon Ramirez is the news director of the Daily Dot, and formerly its entertainment editor and evening editor. He is an Austin 360 regular come ACL time. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Grantland, Washington City Paper, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Monitor. Follow him on Twitter: @AThousandGrams.

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