“If you at Coachella tonight then you gettin’ faded — I know because I am too.” It was halfway through The Weeknd’s headlining set at America’s premier desert fest, and the 28-year-old singer was taking quick stock of the scene in front of him: the 100,000-plus fans, the empty margarita cups, the neon-lit palm trees. At that point, the old Abel — the one of moody R&B, of late nights and drugged-out despair — was just beginning to rear his head.
Few festival crowds fit the artist as well as Coachella’s, particularly on Friday, which initially looked like a scene from the Toronto-bred singer’s 2011 mixtape Thursday. Before the set, fans were splayed out on the field, burned out, smoking, or staring off into the distance (cue “Cause getting faded too long / Got me on this rolling stone / So I take another hit / Kill another serotonin”).
Thankfully, the 90-minute performance wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. This was a career-spanning show, with The Weeknd hedging his earlier work with more dance-ready fare. Sometimes, it’s best to give the masses what they want. Ahead, a few of the evening’s highlights, lowlights, and random observations.
The neoclassical stage design
We are in a post-Saint Pablo environment, which means more artists are stepping up their live production. For The Weeknd, that meant placing a gigantic head-and-arm sculpture in the middle of the stage, tilting it at a 45-degree angle (which made it look like it was melting into the floorboards), and then projecting glitchy video art onto it. There was also a large crack down the middle of the face, the message being, I suppose, that nothing splits the soul in half like heartbreak (see: The Weeknd’s latest project, My Dear Melancholy). Was it super on-the-nose? Of course it was. Did it still look cool? Indeed.
The set was more dance-heavy than down-tempo
The Weeknd kicked things off with the energetic cross-genre cut “Pray for Me” off Black Panther: The Album (sans Kendrick Lamar, who made two mainstage cameos earlier in the evening with Vince Staples and fellow TDE–er SZA). From there, he transitioned into Daft Punk-produced “Starboy” (sans Daft Punk, obviously) and then into “Party Monster,” where he — speaking of on-the-nose — pantomimed having sex while singing the infamous “ass like Selena” line.
And as for Selena Gomez …
Though Abel’s most recent EP is essentially a postmortem for their relationship — though, for what it’s worth, The Weeknd has neither confirmed nor denied that — he waited until the very end of the evening to perform a few of its standout tracks (“Call Out My Name,” “Wasted Times”), despite its current chart domination (it’s now sitting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200). Maybe he wanted to stick with more high-energy songs because kicking off your first Coachella headlining set with slower work isn’t the best way to go — something Drake learned the hard way when he played the mainstage back in 2014 to middling reviews. Or maybe he just didn’t want to muddy his good vibes by having to think about a painful breakup.
No, the Weeknd was not crying while performing “Call Out My Name”
That’s sweat, folks! At least I think it was? It probably was.
He gave a nod to his past
The Weeknd first performed at Coachella in 2012, before he became a bona fide pop star. To thank the fans who’ve been with him since the beginning, he played a range of early standout tracks, including “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” (with an extended drum solo from the always-amazing Ricky Lewis), “The Morning,” and “Wicked Games.”
A Hollywood ending
Though Abel Tesafaye’s origin story is located north of the border, he had to go to Los Angeles to become the type of star that headlines Coachella (it was in L.A. where he first worked with super-pop producer Max Martin). Fittingly, he closed things out with one of his biggest hits, the Hollywood-set “The Hills,” an ode to early evening, sexed-up SoCal rendezvous. As Abel led the crowd in sing-along — “I only call you when it’s haaaalf paaaast fiiive” — fireballs shot into the air, and dark storm clouds gathered on the video screen. By the end, he gave the crowd a long wave and kiss goodbye — the perfect ending to a debaucherous California night.