“This is going to be the best concert of our lives,” yelled a drunken teenage girl to her friends in the minutes before The Weeknd — Friday’s headlining artist — was scheduled to go on. Even though The Weeknd’s music was well-received by the Friday night crowd, his concert wasn’t particularly inventive or original, which was especially disappointing given that he was one of the three Outside Lands headliners.
To be fair, many people are worse live than they are in the studio, and The Weeknd certainly is not. In fact, he sounds exactly as he does on his albums. For those who like his recorded work, it might just have been the best concert of their lives. Drunken teenagers moshed and sang along as they scrambled to get close to the stage, while fans in their mid-50s and beyond swayed while sitting on official Outside Lands picnic blankets, sprawled on the grassy hill to the left of the Lands End stage. The people paid to hear the radio hits, and by God, they heard them.
Entering with the thunderous “Pray For Me” off the masterful, Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack for “Black Panther,” The Weeknd paced the stage as he expertly executed the now-iconic chorus. That movement became the modus operandi of the entire set — he walked to one side, and then the other and then back, occasionally leaning into the mic.
Not that the people watching from outside the immediate stage view area would be able to tell, however: Inexplicably, the Jumbotron screens only played fuzzy, black-and-white close-ups of the artist, with the experimental digital art on the screen behind him overlaid on top of the Jumbotron visuals. This artistic choice disappointingly rendered the set barely visible for those deep in the crowd or too far off to the side, which was, of course, most of the audience.
That’s not to say those visuals were bad in and of themselves, however — if anything, The Weeknd’s lighting and graphics team deserves a raise. Brilliant spotlights coming from every direction and wave-shaped light-source stage pieces illuminated the set, bringing a sense of excitement to an otherwise stagnant performance. Smoke machines shot enormous clouds of smoke into the air, which dissipated into the pre-existing clouds of weed smoke.
Besides once yelling for the ladies of the crowd to “make some noise” before telling them to “shake somethin’ ” — to which they happily obliged — the Starboy rarely spoke during his set beyond naming San Francisco, which he occasionally sang and occasionally shortened to “Frisco.” He did mention bringing his first mixtapes to San Francisco, but that was as far as he got into trying to relate to his crowd.
The one standout in his set was his performance of “Call Out My Name,” the sexy-sad jam that was slowed down even further to exemplify The Weeknd’s vocal range. The crowd swayed as the artist sat on a stool, one spotlight illuminating him as the lighting set pieces in the background displayed a soft gold. A graceful and passionate performance, it was unfortunately The Weeknd’s penultimate number — by that time, many were leaving the festival grounds to beat the exit rush. It’s not necessarily the fact that it was a downtempo version that made the song stand out; it was that he was doing something different, taking a risk and showing something new to a crowd that was clearly familiar with his radio bops.
Were he to demonstrate that passion throughout his set, he’d undeniably have put on a killer show. But whether it was because of the cold San Francisco air or the limitations of a festival stage, The Weeknd inaugurated Outside Lands weekend with a lackluster set, one that would hardly hold a candle to Florence and the Machine and Janet Jackson’s performances to come.
As fun as it is to scream “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” with thousands of drunk and high festivalgoers, the missed potential of The Weeknd’s set stuck around longer than the weed in the air and the scattered compostable cups on the ground.