The 25-year-old singer, born Abel Tesfaye, was only just announced as Saturday's de facto headliner, switching spaces with Jack White at the end of March and closing out the main stage. On paper, following up White's epic rock assault with downtempo, seductive alt-soul seems a heavy lift. But the Weeknd's set proved just as muscular and climactic, and without the cheat codes that everyone thought were coming.
Sunday headliner Drake didn't spoil his performance by delivering his verse on their collaboration "Crew Love"; Ariana Grande, whose tour stopped in nearby Anaheim last night, was a no-show for their Hot 100 top 10 "Love Me Harder"; The Weeknd covered "Drunk In Love," but Beyoncé, who Instagrammed that she was at Coachella yesterday, presumably watched from some hyperbaric, golden-plated VIP area instead of joining him onstage and breaking the Internet.
Instead, there was The Weekend standing alone, much like his massive, God-like billboard that sprouted up over one of the highways between Los Angeles and Coachella earlier this week. There weren't A-list guests or fireworks -- just a masterful performance of The Weeknd's best songs in front of a huge crowd.
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Silhouetted in front of a trippy LED screen, with a three-piece band on a platform behind him, the singer was confident and in command, from first number "High for This" -- an appropriate opener for the thousands of attendees intoxicated by music, the desert air, or whatever else -- to closer "Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)," the Weeknd's biggest hit, and a sign of a new pop approach that could make his forthcoming album the biggest of his career.
His voice was spectacularly unblemished -- a sharp, belted falsetto that seemed to beam straight to the cragged mountains surrounding the festival grounds. He and his instrument were never overwhelmed: neither by his vice-tight band's crushing industrial soul, filled with screaming rock guitar and a drummer with some serious church chops; nor the occasion and what it could mean for his career, which until "Shades" and "Love Me Harder" was that of an outsider. The only real flaw? He started 20 minutes late.
"This is the greatest night of my entire life," the Weeknd told the crowd. "Nothing's better than right now."
When musicians say things like this onstage, they're often exaggerating for the sake of the audience -- but here, the Weeknd seemed dead serious. Three years after making his Coachella debut in a daytime slot in front a few hundred people, he was following up the two biggest hits of his career with a powerful set on the biggest stage at what's become the biggest festival in America.