BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL For the Sun-Times
The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, performs Saturday
at Lollapalooza. (Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)Anyone can be a pop star, fueled by inspiration that comes from anywhere – or seemingly everywhere – at once. That’s the great democratic ideal of the music industry in the digital era, anyway, but to judge by Saturday evening’s Lollapalooza lineup, it can actually come true. How else besides blind luck to explain the transformation of former punk singer and record label functionary Santi White, ukulele-strumming theater geek Merrill Garbus and 22-year-old Canadian social-media cipher Abel Tesfaye into Santigold, Tune-Yards and the Weeknd, three of pop’s most talked-about artists?
Garbus was among the first acts on stage after the weather delay. With storm clouds scuttling across Lake Michigan behind her, a golden evening sun on her face and fans at her feet eager to get back in the groove, the happy, bobbing pop of Tune-Yards proved ideal.
At first alone and then backed by two saxophones and a bass guitar, Garbus pounded out drum patterns, looped them, then layered on wordless vocalizations, strummed progressions and a tumble of sing-shouted lyrics. Piecing together scraps like a found-art collagist, she made a driving, percussive clatter with little apparent effort and beaming all the while.
The big-stage festival setting is intended for entertaining, and that’s what Tune-Yards did. That left unanswered the question of where Garbus will go next, but it’s been barely a year since the release of “Whokill,” the album that put her on the map, and just three years ago her songs were essentially a home-recording hobby. She has time. For today, the electric charge of tunes like “Bizness,” “Gangsta” and “Powa” was enough.
***The rocket ride to recognition came even faster for downtempo R&B act the Weeknd, fueled by three digital mixtapes released online last year. Even now, what’s really going on behind the curtain remains subject to conjecture and dispute. Before this gig, we knew only that the startlingly effeminate, soft and supple voice in the songs belongs to Tesfaye, that he’s tight with Drake, and that whatever else he wants you to know will come from his Twitter or Tumblr. He has yet to grant interviews and has performed live scarcely more than a handful of times, including at Lincoln Hall in May.
Tesfaye’s presentation didn’t deviate from his recordings, which have grabbed notice as much for countering seemingly every trope of commercial R&B as for his cloak of mystery and golden throat. These aren’t cuts made to thump the club but for the lonely wee hours after.
Backing was spare, usually relying on one dominant element, like liquid electric piano in “The Zone,” harried, dense drums in “Glass Table” and woozy, fuzzed-out beats in “Lonely Star.” He sang with pronounced restraint, too, as if whispering across the pillow or talking only to himself. And he remained mostly still at center stage.
Given his minimal approach and scant experience, it’s inevitable that the set seemed to drag. But with better pacing and showmanship, not to mention a more favorable setting–say, a dim concert hall, not a mob of Red Hot Chili Peppers fans marking time by sliding in the mud–he could be masterful. Tesfaye, and whoever he’s been writing and producing with, clearly have the tools.
***Though she’s released just two albums, Santigold aka Santi White seemed an old hand by contrast. At 35, she’s been touring internationally for five years now; that’s hardly an eternity but enough to hone and channel her generous natural charisma on stage.
Here she headlined at Perry’s, breaking its usual DJ focus to command the crowd, her band and costumed dancers through a highly polished set of cross-genre global pop. It was danceable, highly so, but not strictly dance music; there was hip-hop, reggae (“Disparate Youths”), and in “Go,” a playful nursery-rhyme cadence coupled with a thrumming krautrock pulse.
It was a spectacle, her dancers dressed as cheerleaders, a chain gang, even cowboys and a giant horse. Front and center was White, master of her make-believe.
That isn’t just the title of the latest Santigold album, it’s also a fitting mission statement–for these three and anyone coming up outside the expected order. In the digital era, what’s make-believe today can be mainstream by morning.