(Note – Check out Steve’s photo gallery at the end of this review)
Sure, he is one of the most popular musical artists in the world right now. Sure, he is a master of using his guitar and loop recorder on stage to create the sound of a full band. And sure, he is self deprecating and likeable fellow. But for all that, how could 27 year old Ed Sheeran hold the attention of tens of thousands of people for one and three quarter hours? What’s the trick? And another question, which seems to have hung around him in the media for a while – is the guy cool, or a little too nice, and thus, a little boring?
A lot to ponder as I attended Sheeran’s first 2018 show in New Zealand, at Mount Smart Stadium on a rainy Saturday night in Auckland. I came to the concert as no big Sheeran fan and, to be honest, not that familiar with his music.
The simple answer is that Ed Sheeran did indeed capture the crowd, and this is the easy part of the question. The numbers turning up, and the degree to which they laughed, danced and sang with him speak for themselves. I took my sixteen year old nephew Sam to the concert and Sam’s voice was hoarse by the end of the evening, having sung along with pretty much every song. He wasn’t alone.
So Sheeran is clearly gets something right. The songs are undeniably catchy, an interesting mix of rappy folk and pop (to me anyway). I don’t think it was by chance that Van Morrison was playing on the loudspeakers before the show. There’s also something of the celtic soul to the tunes. Sheeran played a lot of his latest album, Divide, as well as a smattering of earlier hits.
The way the songs are constructed becomes a fascination in its own right. The first few strums, the first few beats on the body of the guitar, which set up the rhythm, don’t always tell the crowd which song is about to be played. It’s when Sheeran applies a guitar phrase or two that the melody is apparent, and then the recognition becomes a roar.
Being just being one bloke on the stage seemed not a concern at all. With the aid of a huge video screen and some carefully and inventively choreographed graphic sequences (including, in one song, a kiwi and a koala to denote the Australasian tour), there was plenty to absorb the eye as well as the ear. Sheeran himself moves to the front of the stage from time to time, leaping atop a speaker to conduct singalongs. I thought his voice was stronger live than on record.
Finally, and crucial to the question of his “coolness” is his onstage persona. Well you strongly suspect that what you see onstage is what you’d see in day to day life. Ed Sheeran seems very comfortable in his own (heavily tattooed) skin, and at ease with himself. He pulled out all the stops to cajole the crowd into relaxing and having a good time, mocking himself for how uncool he used to look when attending concerts. Boyfriends and super dads were singled out for their ability to stand like statues when all around them were letting their hair down. He may not have an edge of danger or rebel about him, but he is so genuine that you’d have to have a cold hard heart not to get in behind what he’s doing on stage.
Ed Sheeran obviously keeps across what’s said about him. He told us that after his show at the Glastonbury Festival some accused him of lip syncing. He assured the Mount Smart crowd all they heard on this night was live. And in his encore, he again wore an All Black shirt. On his previous tour it bore the name Lomu on the back, to acknowledge the death of the great player. Tonight, the word Holt appeared, an apparent (and humorous) tip to the comments from television Hayley Holt that he wasn’t her cup of tea.
One more observation: just as Crave saw a few weeks ago when Melbourne solo multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana played at the Auckland City Limits, this type of performance takes a huge effort of concentration and creativity from the artist. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re up there by yourself. Sheeran, and Sultana, played great concerts. Their energy and commitment were unquestioned. Sheeran still has shows to play here, and Sultana returns mid year. A treat is in store. Steve McCabe shot the concert photos for Crave!