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Save your tears: The Weeknd was a blast

The Weeknd performs Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

When The Weeknd took his song “Can’t Feel My Face” to the top of the charts in 2015, many listeners naturally wondered what exactly he meant by the phrase. (A narcotic reaction, perhaps?)

When the 32-year-old Toronto native took the stage at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, the sold-out house could feel not just their faces but their skulls, their sternums, and the contents of their stomachs. Near the stage, the subwoofers were so physical that my nostrils (my nostrils!) were quivering.

How do they do that? It’s a good question for almost everything The Weeknd does. In less than a decade he has become one of pop music’s most bankable stars, with six No. 1 hits, dozens of singles from five albums and various features, and an enigmatic persona that only adds to the allure.


His songs, by turns referencing left-field R&B, the ‘80s, underground dance culture, and the futuristic wonders of synthesizer patches, might seem like strange bets for the pop mainstream were it not for his unparalleled melodicism and vocal techniques. On Thursday he had a generation of fans — many of them dressed up for clubland in spite of the heat — singing along to his falsetto acrobatics on “Starboy,” “Heartless,” the nightmarish “The Hills,” the uncanny not-Michael-Jackson dance tune “I Feel It Coming,” and more than two dozen other tracks over a sensory-overloading 100 minutes or so.

The state-of-the-art production included a massive set designed to look like the superstar’s beloved Toronto skyline, besieged by some form of apocalypse or three. Pyro blasts made it seem like the end was in fact near.

The Weeknd performs Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Twenty or so female figures covered in red hijabs bore witness, marching solemnly up and down the long runway. A huge red moon hung from cables at the far end of the stadium while a laser show carved triangles in the night sky. At one point a light tower beamed from the 50-yard line straight up into the cosmos.


True to his inscrutable instincts, the singer came onstage wearing a black trench coat and a plastic mask. Later, he dropped the mask and tossed the trench coat into the crowd, revealing a black vest that resembled a flak jacket, ominously enough.

If The Weeknd’s songs inhabit the far end of the pop-experimental spectrum, his stage presence on his first tour of this scale was kind of boilerplate arena rock. He strutted, he played air keyboards, he struck a Messiah pose. He hinted at dance steps.

Most of the audience experienced early-evening opening sets by the producers Mike Dean and Kaytranada from the gridlocked traffic approaching Patriot Place. Once they made their way inside the stadium, chants of “Abel! Abel!” (The Weeknd’s given name) rang through the crowd.

In addition to a career-spanning setlist (from “Wicked Games” and “Kiss Land” to nearly half of his latest release, “Dawn FM”), the set featured snippets of songs he has cut with big-name collaborators – Kanye West’s recent “Hurricane,” Drake’s “Crew Love” (which helped graduate The Weeknd from his mixtape beginnings).

At this point, he hardly needs his famous friends. “We found each other,” he cooed to kick off “Call Out My Name,” a dramatic ballad that doubled as a stadium-size seduction.

He encored, of course, with “Blinding Lights,” the glassy synth-pop throwback which stayed on Billboard’s Hot 100 for a record 90 weeks.


“I said, ooh, I’m drowning in the night,” The Weeknd trilled. By then, his crowd had already gone under.


At Gillette Stadium, Thursday.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.