It’s difficult to imagine that an intensely theatrical performer like the Weeknd — whose videos, concerts, 2021 Super Bowl Halftime performance and lyrics are loaded with vibrant, at times disturbing imagery — would launch his first-ever stadium tour without spectacle.
And thankfully, after several incidents of unwanted drama — including two Covid-related delays, the postponement of the tour’s intended opening date in Toronto last weekend due to a Canada-wide wireless outage, and original opening act Doja Cat dropping out due to tonsil surgery — for the belated first night of his “After Hours Til Dawn” tour in Philadelphia, the theatrics were all onstage.
The concert took place on a humid July night in Philadelphia, which had a temperature of 87 degrees as the show opened with sets from producer-artist Mike Dean and Canadian electronic act Kaytranada, but it had cooled down by the time the Weeknd’s headlining set began at around 9 p.m. The Weeknd’s best music traffics in mood, nuance and a mixture of ecstasy and darkness, and that carried over onto a sprawling, technically complex stage, which broadly resembles a towering, crumbling cityscape and spanned much of the Lincoln Financial Field’s grounds. For the two-hour set, the singer, decked as usual in black, was accompanied by a gang of sheathed dancers — and a crowd of nearly 70,000 people, many of whom were devotees in red jackets and bandaged noses, in emulation of his “After Hours” look.
Rising onto the set’s centerpiece with his shrouded dancers below, the Weeknd emerged wearing a clear face mask and a car-length coat, easing into an oscillating, electro take on the “After Hours” opener “Alone Again” with a clear, warm voice that conveyed both despondence and a world-weary ennui.
Dropping down to stage level, he followed his dancers into a new-wave-inflected take on “Gasoline,” picking up the pace and dancing, holding out his arms to the audience even as the lyrics held them at bay.
The set that followed was heavy on his two most recent albums, this year’s “Dawn FM” and 2020’s “After Hours,” with his earlier hits dropped in strategically to keep the crowd hyped — although the arrangements of many of the songs were revamped. His angelic voice soared through the Swedish House Mafia remix version of “Sacrifice,” a disco-fied “How Do I Make You Love Me?” and a jittery version of “Can’t Feel My Face” that featured a break reminiscent of vintage New Order. Those three tracks, performed as a medley, turned the venue into an apocalyptic dance party, with the Weeknd as its jovial, devilish host.
Although musicians were not visible on the sprawling stage, they certainly made their presence heard: Mangled guitars and wheezing church organs dominated his recent hit “Take My Breath” and “Hurricane,” followed by the sultry “Often.”
He brought the energy level down with spacey takes on “Starboy” and “Heartless,” with cobalt-blue lighting adding to the cool atmosphere; the ambient R&B songs acted as a cooling agent to the heated emotions and red hues of the night’s first half.
That mood continued through the evening’s more ruminative second half as the Weeknd moved gently but no less theatrically through the ‘90s-Motown vibes of “Out of Time,” a celestial “Less Than Zero” and a cinematic “Save Your Tears.” Through these songs, which were filled with bluesy guitar licks and soulful synths, he brought down his voice an octave, adding to the lovelorn emotions of the lyrics.
Of course, the two-hour show wound to a close with the biggest of his many hits, the ‘80s inflected global smash “Blinding Lights,” a song that in many ways summed up the contrasts of the show, the music and the performer: an avant-garde superstar, an aloof lover man, a combination of beauty and madness, all contained in a concert that somehow felt intimate in a football stadium with nearly 70,000 fellow devotees.