In Festival Guide Reviews

The Weeknd kept the weekend going right at Summerfest with his Milwaukee debut on Saturday night. (PHOTO: Ty Helbach)

The Weeknd makes a dynamite Milwaukee debut

That Abel Tesfaye, more famously known as three-time Grammy winner The Weeknd, has never played in Milwaukee before feels like a pretty egregious oversight.

After all, even before his mainstream breakout in 2015 with "Beauty Behind the Madness," the Canadian-born R&B singer was already racking up quite the reputation thanks to his love-stoned, f*ck-drunk mixtapes from the 'Trilogy" – "House of Balloons," "Thursday" and "Echoes of Silence" – and his debut album, "Kiss Land." One would've assumed he'd at least have showed up at The Rave or maybe Turner Hall during that stretch, but to quote a song off his latest EP, "I Was Never There."

Thanks to Summerfest, however, this page has now been stamped in The Weeknd's performance passport, as he roared into the American Family Insurance Amphitheater Saturday night and certainly made up for lost time, blitzing through his not-insubstantial catalogue of hits and giving fans in the crowd the show they've been waiting the better part of a decade for.

Strobe lights pulsing behind him like audio levels on a monitor, The Weeknd opened up the weekend with his most recent hit, the tribal "Black Panther" Kendrick Lamar collaboration "Pray for Me," energetically moving from side to side of the Amp stage. Any concerns the angst-ridden R&B artist would be a bummer live – especially coming off the dark anguish of his post-Selena Gomez breakup EP "My Dear Melancholy" – were thankfully squelched rather quick, any moody angst saved for the songs and lyrics themselves rather than the performance. He then moved quickly into the title track from his last Grammy-winning album, "Starboy," as well as "Party Monster" from the same record, the almost sold-out audience ebbing and flowing with the music as one.

For most of the evening, the show played almost more like a DJ set than a pop show. Tesfaye made almost no time for interaction – save for a few standard shout-outs and compliments to Milwaukee – instead just trucking into song after song, taking the Brew City crowd on an all-too-belated tour of his career thus far. He may have taken his sweet time finally getting to Milwaukee – and he may not have to rush when you're alone with him, according to "I Feel It Coming" – but he was wasting no time sprinting through song after song, focused on giving the crowd the music they'd been waiting for all too long.

That included the early stuff too for his original fans in the crowd. Leading into the moody jam "Reminder," the ominous droning beat of "House of Balloons" could be heard setting the scene ­– and it wasn't just a nice little nod, either, as after a run of "Starboy" tracks and a few collaborations ("Might Not," a tandem effort with fellow Canuck Belly, as well as the Future song "Low Life"), the tease of "House of Balloons" became the whole real thing, along with its woozily drunk R&B track partner "Glass Table Girls" complete with Tesfeye belting out some bruising big notes at the very end.

That quick trip to the past was fairly shortly lived, as The Weeknd popped back to his synth-pop superstar era, starting with the orange dream glow of the funky "Secrets" melding right into his MJ-esque breakout "I Can't Feel My Face" and the Daft Punk-fueled slow jam "I Feel It Coming."

For his deep-cut fans in the crowd, however, he would nicely return to his "House of Balloons" origins for the blues guitar-fueled "The Morning" and "Wicked Games," which came powerfully punctuated with lightning strikes of blinding strobe. (The lights did almost all of the work for the visual component of the stage show; there was a massive screen behind the set, but for someone who's busted out some notable imagery in his music videos – a combusting man in "I Can't Feel My Face," the glowing pink neon cross in "Starboy" – the visuals were a bit of an uninspired and unremarkable screensaver-like dud.)

It was soon back to the hits, though, this time with the ultimate getting freaky song – "Earned It" – from the ultimate getting freaky movie, "50 Shades of Grey." Even though it was mostly just The Weeknd on stage, joined by merely a DJ, a guitar player and a drummer off to the sides of the stage, the theatrical slow jam maintained its almost Bond theme-esque orchestral bombast live. It sounded great – and it would be very unsurprising if some very happy couple somewhere in the crowd paid homage to its cinematic roots and got pregnant during its gettin' down groove.

After a Ty Dolla Sign cover of "Or Nah" and "Acquainted" off his breakout 2015 record, Tesfeye played a few songs off his post-breakup album "My Dear Melancholy." I was originally concerned the show might focus hard on those most recent tracks and dim the celebratory summer night with moody, gloomy darkness – not that he's never been dark in the past; in fact, it's mostly considered a return to his original form … though maybe that's not summer festival form. Mixed in amongst the rest of the hits, however – and, in the case of the acoustic "Call Out My Name," backlit by glowing yellow stage lighting that looked like the crack of dawn slipping through blinds – it gelled, adding not subtracting from the night.

Plus, it helps to end the night on the roaring heat of a big hit – which he did, quite literally, with ominous, nocturnal "The Hills," coming complete with torrents of fire during the chorus. (Thankfully there wasn't a real-life recreation of his "I Can't Feel My Face" music video in the process.) And after burning through all his hits, as well as burning up some atmosphere, Tesfaye called it a close on his first Cream City visit – sans an encore, a bit of a disappointment especially as the lights stayed low for quite some time after the final number while the crowd chanted for a bit more. But it was still 80 minutes more of The Weeknd than Milwaukee's ever seen before – and 80 minutes of solid entertainment.

Let's just hope the R&B star doesn't take as long to make his second visit.

While Tesfaye hails from the north, the night actually began down south with Big Boi, one-half of the legendary Atlanta-born duo Outkast. As always, opening at the Amp is a pretty unenviable gig, playing to half-distracted and half-full crowds – as was the case early Saturday evening.

But Big Boi and his collaborator/hype man Sleepy Brown (who lived up more to his job description than his first name) came out with energy right away, a vibe that quickly became contagious to the audience as they dove into the hits like "The Way You Move," "Ms. Jackson," "So Fresh So Clean" and his current chart-topper, "All Night." Apparently Milwaukee was the first to play the tune on the radio – though whether or not that was after its Apple commercial appearance, I'm not sure. Either way, the song – and the rest of the set – killed, eventually getting the crowd dancing and starting the night off on a playful punch.

In my particular section, however, he was almost upstaged by three young boys gleefully busting out The Floss and the shoot dance to "Ms. Jackson" and Big Boi's other Outkast hits. (Never mind that almost certainly none of them were alive for "Stankonia.") One even kept dancing despite having a cast on his arm (maybe suffered from dabbing too much?). Talk about some star boys.

Setlist

"Pray for Me"
"Starboy"
"Party Monster"
"Reminder"
"Six Feet Under"
"Low Life"
"Might Not"
"Sidewalks"
"House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls"
"Secrets"
"I Can't Feel My Face"
"I Feel It Coming"
"The Morning"
"Wicked Games"
"Earned It"
"Or Nah" (Ty Dolla Sign cover)
"Acquainted"
"Wasted Times"
"Call Out My Name"
"The Hills"


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