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Coachella 2012: The headcase R&B of The Weeknd

April 16, 2012 |  5:00 am

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Accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar, Abel Tesfaye concluded his set with a song entitled “Wicked Games.” Better known as The Weeknd, Tesfaye played mostly with a full band at Coachella, and the songs were sparse, filled with atmospheres pulled out of shadows and beats that split the difference between modern hip-hop and bedroom soul. “Wicked Games,” however, was best served bare.

Tesfaye started it by singing the blues. “I left my girl back home.” Then he cut to the tragedy: “I don’t love her no more.” What followed was about a four-minute look into the mind of a hopelessly reckless romantic. There were lies, affairs, drugs, and through it all Tesfaye was fixated on his shame. He sang the word gently. Shame. As if it might flutter away in the wind at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival if he said it soft enough.

It wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, it was all over the preceding 45 minutes, which presented modern R&B as high drama. There were moments of uplift, sure, most notably when he sang the cymbal-crashing “Crew Love,” a song found on the most recent album from his more famous collaborator, rapper Drake, but there was a reason why when cameras flashed to audience members some of them looked on the verge of tears.

COACHELLA 2012 | Full coverage

“The Morning” had a swift, easy-to-dance-to groove, but Tesfaye reached his hands outward to the audience, as if offering a reminder that what lurks beneath the beat is something a bit more sinister. “All the money is the motive,” Tesfaye crooned through gritted teeth and shut eyes as if painting a portrait of a seedy underworld. A downbeat guitar solo arrived three-fourths the way in to further sour the mood.

This post has made it this far without mentioning that Tesfaye scored a nighttime slot on the final night of Coachella by releasing only mixtapes and side-stepping the traditional music business. Coachella, when done right, is one of the more curated of music festivals around, and industry team player or not, it was clear Tesfaye has found his audience. The crowd at the second of two outdoor stages was one of the largest of the weekend, and the VIP areas were shoulder-to-shoulder.

They all bounced in time to “House of Balloons,” but if anyone thought Tesfaye wasn’t being sarcastic when he shouted “This is a happy house” – and he shouted with grace, mind you – they weren’t paying attention. When the song segued into “Glass Table Girls,” his guitarist and bassist downturned their instruments so it sounded as if Tesfaye was singing over an jet engine. For Tesfaye’s sake, here’s hoping he was riding a ticket out of his own head.

Other notes from the final day of Coachella:

Near the end of Wild Flag’s set, Carrie Brownstein unleashed a wail that could make the hair on the back of your neck stand on high alert. “I’m gonna trample yoooooouuuuuuuu,” she shouted during the finale of “Racehorse.” If anyone was intimidated, it wasn’t her band, as fellow guitarist Mary Timony stood her ground with her leg perched on her amp, and drummer Janet Weiss looked dead ahead as she provided more drum fills for Brownstein to go nuts with.

There’s a lot of hard rock at Coachella, but Wild Flag celebrate it in all its aggressive glory. Rebecca Cole’s organ exudes thick, flower-power snappiness on “Romance,” and “Glass Tambourine” captures these indie rock vets providing a mini stroll through the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Somehow, in only about six minutes, there’s bluesy diversions, guitar crests and a flighty, surf-pop keyboard. When it comes down for a breather, Timony plays her guitar as if she’s delivering a message in Morse code, one where unlocking the everlasting power of rock ‘n’ roll is the mystery at hand.

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-- Todd Martens

Photo: The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye) performs during Day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival held at the Empire Polo Club on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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