Ed Sheeran played a quite excellent show at Eden Park in Auckland last night. It just wasn’t quite the show he’d expected to play.
It was, from the start, something a little different. The first time I saw Sheeran, at Mount Smart Stadium in 2015, it was a very straightforward show—one man, one guitar, a clutch of effects pedals, and a very happy audience. Three years later, the basics were the same, but with the addition of a huge video screen for a backdrop. But a little more thought has gone into Sheeran’s stage performances in the last five years. Last night’s show, the second Aotearoa date in his – = ÷ x Tour, was performed in the round, and, even more interestingly for an Ed Sheeran show, with a full band for several songs.
But the songs remain the same, the fundamentals of an Ed Sheeran concert unchanged. At he heart of the performance is one man, a small-ish and unassuming stage presence in grey cargo pants and a black T-shirt with the word “Auckland” in not very large lettering, playing his guitar for fifty thousand fans. There’s a bit more to the performance than just that, and Sheeran is a very skilled entertainer, building loops on stage as he plays, tapping out rhythms that then loop under guitar and vocal lines to create rich, full-sounding songs. Whether this is truly a live experience is, at this point, moot—Sheeran still explains to his fans what he’s doing, how this technique works, and he still sounds like he’s very slightly justifying it, but it works, and it’s been his way of playing live shows for years.
And so he trotted through an hour and forty-five minutes of fan favourites. He’s only got four albums to draw from, but there’s plenty of hits in there, and his audience, even the ones who weren’t even born when he was writing songs like The A Team or Sing, knew every word, danced and sang to every song. And when Sheeran introduced songs like I See Fire, written for The Hobbit, with references to his clearly very real affection for New Zealand, he had the crowd exactly where he wanted them. The couple dancing in the pit next to me saw me taking notes, and made me promise that I’d mention what an amazing show it was. They were having, it was clear, very nearly as much fun as Sheeran himself was.
And that’s a large part of what makes an Ed Sheeran show work. Like I’ve said, for the most part it was just Sheeran, a guitar, a mic stand, and a rack of pedals, on a rotating stage that he trotted round like it wasn’t rotating quite fast enough for him. The songs are strong enough, his singing is similarly strong even if his voice isn’t as distinctive or characterful as it might want to be (looking at my notes, I see I wrote to myself ‘starting to sound a little like Justin Bieber?’), but the success of his shows is down to, in no small part, the man himself. He’s ultimately just another heavily, and badly, tattooed ginger from Halifax. But there is something so utterly ingenuous; he comes across as an honestly sincere bloke, a busker who can’t quite believe his luck that he’s gone from pavements to arenas.
But there needs to be more than just that. He has, as I’ve mentioned, the songs and the talent. But after a good ten years of the one-man-and-his-guitar routine, Sheeran has decided it’s time to add a further dimension to his show, and so he now has a band in tow. The focus of the show is still very much Sheeran himself, alone in the center of the rotating stage. But the screens and speakers above the stage were suspended from cables anchored by half a dozen pillars dotted around the stage, and at the feet of these pillars were his backing band—a drummer over here, a bass player there, a couple of guitarists at that one. They had names, I’m sure, but I didn’t catch them when Sheeran passingly introduced them, but they added an extra bit of detail and interest to songs that, I’m sorry to say, were otherwise starting to sound just a tiny bit same-y.
But I’m pretty sure I was the only one feeling that way. As he teed up Thinking Out Loud, the last song he played with his band around him, he told the audience “This is where the real sing-along begins. If you don’t know the words to these songs, you might be at the wrong concert.” There wasn’t a soul around me who was at the wrong concert. Sheeran, of course, might well have been, by that measure, at the wrong concert a few days earlier when he forgot the words to Galway Girl, but he was smart enough to mention that as he introduced Tina, his support artist Maisie Peters’ fiddler, on stage for last night’s run through the song, which he’d clearly rehearsed a bit more ahead of playing in Auckland.
And so the show pressed on, but on the stroke of ten o’clock it went a little sideways. A minute into Bloodstream, it was clear something was wrong, and as he pushed on with the song, the static in the speakers got worse until the song was unlistenable. He mimed something that made us think there was a problem with his microphone, he left the stage, and we waited. “Mic’s gone, give me five,” he told the crowd. Five minutes later, saying “Oh, it’s fixed—let’s pretend it didn’t happen,” he tried again; the sound failed again, and Sheeran looked up at the sky, arms out, as if to say “Seriously?” Again, he left the stage, this time for about twenty minutes. Back he came again; again the sound was very, very badly broken as he took a third stab at Bloodstream, a song that was, clearly, cursed. Finally, he told us that there was a problem with his loop pedal, and he’d be playing some acoustic numbers until it was fixed. Now, why a man whose set is built around creating loops doesn’t have a spare loop pedal somewhere in his kit bag will ever remain a mystery to me, but no matter. Sheeran had been quite the performer until now; this is when he seriously impressed.
He might have forgotten the lyrics to Galway Girl in Wellington, but he managed to drop Lego House and Give Me Love into the set list without, it would appear, any rehearsing or planning. Even the cheesy, corny “Which side of the audience” schtick he dropped in to Give Me Love made it sound like this was all part of the show, but he was in fact winging it, playing some songs in arrangements he hadn’t rehearsed, others he hadn’t expected to be playing at all. It was, at this point, the most pared-back and simple part of the show, and it was the most enjoyable, too. Shape Of You sounded better than it ever did on the record—as producer Rick Rubin told him, he told us, you can tell if a song’s any good if you can just play it on the guitar and it still sounds good. So that’s what he did with Shape Of You, and his usual set-closer, You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, and they both worked better than they had any business sounding.
And that, ultimately, is the measure of Ed Sheeran. Who cares about the loops and the pedals and the rotating stage? He’s a singer, a musician, and while he might not be the most technically accomplished guitarist—having a lead guitarist in his backing band just reminded us that he’s strictly rhythm, man, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing—he’s a performer, and when it all gets stripped away, when it’s just him and his guitar, like it was when he started out as a teenager, he’s a very, very talented entertainer.