Monday, September 24, 2012

A tale of two singers: Bobby Womack and the Weeknd in concert

Posted By on 09.24.12 at 01:05 PM

A couple golden-voiced singers on divergent career paths opened and closed a packed weekend of shows in Chicago. Toronto R&B artist Abel Tesfaye (aka the Weeknd) kicked things off Friday night with a sensual, rapturous set at the Congress Theater, and dynamic soul musician Bobby Womack closed the second annual Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sunday night with a rousing and boisterous performance. Both artists were on the road behind new releases—the Weeknd is readying The Trilogy for Universal Republic, which repackages the three mixtapes he released last year, and Womack dropped The Bravest Man in the Universe through XL back in June—that show off their best sides with few instrumental flourishes.

Womack's new album is notably coy in comparison to most of the material from his decades-long career; those moody, stripped-down textures were nowhere to be found during his Sunday night set. Backed by a dozen-plus musicians—four horn players, three backup singers, a keyboardist, a bassist, a guitarist, a drummer, a percussionist, and the occasional musician on acoustic guitar—Womack launched into "Across 110th Street" to begin a robust and lively set filled with classic hits. While Womack revels in an aged grace on The Bravest Man in the Universe, he sounded rather youthful in concert, even when he had to take a quick break from meandering around the stage to take a seat.

The set had a celebratory swing to it, with his backing band cutting grooves that made the whole performance feel like an upbeat impromptu jam session. Dressed head to toe in a red-and-black outfit Womack appeared cool, confident, and casual while belting out song after song in his striking and tender baritone. He was endearing as the show's ringleader, cracking jokes and speaking candidly about his recent battle with cancer, and approaching the crowd to momentarily grasp the hands of those die-hard fans who lunged towards the stage.

Bobby Womack

Womack commanded the stage with his approachable personality, a sharp change from the introverted performance by the Weeknd just days before Womack's appearance. Despite his status as a recognizable pop artist Abel Tesfaye still appears intent on keeping his identity in the shadows (hence no press photos from his club performances), which is something he managed to do quite literally Friday night. Most of Tesfaye's backing band stood behind gigantic stage pieces scattered around the stage—six projection screens showing glamorous close-ups of women; at one point, a video of Drake; and a slew of circular lamps—and though the singer himself stood before the crowd he often appeared obscured by the moody light settings. At times the entire stage was shrouded in darkness, though the Congress remained dimly lit by an army of smartphones.

The arty darkness of the Weeknd's live setup worked to Tesfaye's benefit, playing to the intimacy of his sweet and sultry R&B songs and somehow making the cavernous Congress feel somewhat cozy. Tesfaye didn't really need to put the spotlight on him or anyone else in order to deliver a performance, as his seductive and smooth voice proved to be the real draw; he made his melancholic tunes radiate even when he sang so softly it barely registered. Tesfaye lacks the showmanship that's an integral part of Bobby Womack's live set, but he still managed to leave an impression.

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