The Weeknd Proved That Toronto Is His City Rogers Centre, September 22

With Kaytranada
The Weeknd Proved That Toronto Is His City Rogers Centre, September 22
Photo: Hyghly Alleyne
The Weeknd played his first show ever in 2011. It was at Toronto's Mod Club, which had a capacity of a few hundred. Last night, he played the first of two sold-out shows for 45,000 screaming fans at the Rogers Centre. With his signature melange of drama, sex appeal and showmanship, he made it clear — this was his city. Our city. Abel Tesfaye was home, and he was going to make this a homecoming to remember.

The star appeared onstage through a cloud of fog in a car-length black jacket, a mask covering his face as he sang the opening lines of "Alone Again." As he stood atop a building facade in front of a red-tinted skyline backdrop, he channeled a sort of domineering Blade Runner supervillain. It only took a few verses to realize his voice was back to top form (following some vocal issues earlier this month), and the crowd erupted as it filled the stadium.  

For fans, this show was a long time coming — years, to be exact. Many ticket-holders had been set to see the originally planned tour in 2020, which was then postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic, and then to January of 2022. When that arena tour was cancelled and rescheduled as a summer stadium tour, it seemed like the show might be doomed to never happen. That was all before a national power outage pushed the Toronto date yet again from July to September. When opener Kaytranada's power went out mid-set on Thursday night, you started to wonder whether this homecoming might be cursed. There was an audible sigh of relief when the stage lights came back to life.

The consolation prize for fans was that the Weeknd promised something "bigger" and even more "special" in the newest iteration of the After Hours til Dawn tour. And he delivered: the 100-minute production was a high-energy sensory feast of synchronized lights, lasers and synths. Eerie Handmaid's Tale-esque dancers shrouded in red capes followed him around the stage, looming in the distance, and even encircling him at times as though symbolizing demons, sins or regrets. Fans were given bracelets that lit up in time with the music, à la Coldplay's Xylobands. Tesfaye masterfully dominated a catwalk that connected both sides of the stadium, with an enormous moon hovering over a platform at one end — this was production with a price tag.

While part of you wanted to curse the leather-clad fans around you for constantly having their phones out, this show was designed to be captured. Moments were perfectly curated for social media, and the temptation to film the skyline set bursting into actual flames at the chorus of "The Hills" was just too irresistible for most to pass up.

The 29-song setlist was ambitious, well-paced, and an ode to an impressive 10-plus year career. As he took fans from one hit to another, what struck fans was not only that Tesfaye is behind so many generation-marking singles, but that he has evolved so much as an artist in the process.

This being the After Hours til Dawn tour, the majority of the setlist was pulled from his last two albums — but in the moments where he reached back into his catalogue for songs like "Wicked Games" and "Kiss Land," the contrast between his brooding anti-hero beginnings and his pop-fuelled present was striking. Many artists become more cynical and hedonistic as their career progresses, but Tesfaye's trajectory has been the opposite.

While one show was happening onstage, there was another happening all around you. Groups of men held each other as they sing-screamed their romantic frustrations into the abyss; a woman wiped away tears as her boyfriend rocked her to "After Hours"; girls raised their hands in elation every time the Weeknd sang a sexually suggestive lyric (which happened a lot). Throughout the show, the Weeknd orchestrated fans into cathartic singalongs. This culminated in "Call Out My Name," when tens of thousands of people directed their pain to the maestro of heartbreak on stage.

The average Weeknd fan seemed to be somewhere around 25 years old, making it unlikely that they'd followed Tesfaye from his earliest days. Yet, they seemed to know every word to his entire catalogue; walking through the venue, fans sported merchandise from every iteration of Tesfaye's career, from House of Balloons to Starboy and Dawn FM. (For his latest merch, you'd have to wait an hour and a half in a line that wrapped around the entire stadium.) This speaks to the unique way that the Weeknd has been able to hold onto old fans while bringing new ones into the fold as he jumped from alternative R&B singer to international pop star.

But the relationship between the Weeknd and his fans is symbiotic — while they fed off his energy, his gratitude was directed right back. Some of the most impactful moments of the evening were when the Weeknd would drop his stage persona and Abel Tesfaye would come through, smiling, awe-struck and thankful. At one point, the crowd's chants of "Abel" brought him to tears; he looked out at his fans, and his voice cracked as he promised, "We're gonna do this until the day I die." It's a beautiful and intimate relationship to witness, and a feat for that intimacy to be so palpable in a space so big.

The evening was a milestone for the Weeknd and the city he came from. When the final notes of "Blinding Lights" rung out and the stadium went dark after nearly two hours of non-stop hits, there was a moment of brief silence before a woman in the crowd yelled out, "again!"

It might have taken a couple of years, a few postponements and a national power outage for us to get there, but the message from the crowd was clear — welcome home Abel, it was worth the wait.