Ed Sheeran is an international superstar, there is no doubt. But what is it about the quietly spoken and unassuming Brit that can attract close to 80,000 people of all ages to a Sydney venue on a school night?
Just one man and his guitar?
Sheeran’s songs are, of course, radio friendly and inoffensive to the ear. In fact, they are always on the radio. His music ranges from pop to ballads and Irish jigs to his very own take on rap and hip-hop – so he caters for a large audience but there is more to it than that.
I happened to be sitting next to rock guru Glenn A Baker at ANZ Stadium and he posed a question early in the evening that I had also been pondering. He was trying to think of another modern artist who could attract, let alone captivate, a younger crowd of this size with just a guitar.
And remember, this is a time when even young children are listening to slow beats and mumbling rap verses from the likes of Post Malone, Cardi B and Lil Pump.
Baker and I never answered that question.
Sheeran, quite simply, stands alone in championing the simple beauty of lyrics and a guitar and has made it appealing to a younger crowd. It just so happens that an older crowd likes his music too.
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A cooling sea breeze had swept through ANZ Stadium not long before Sheeran stepped on stage, his arrival broadcast on the big screen and met with a giant roar from the crowd.
There was no problem with fans overheating at this particular gig.
Sheeran launched straight into Castle on the Hill before greeting the crowd and doing a bit of housekeeping.
“Bloody hell this place is massive. I’m going to play some songs and I hope you know them or it might be a long two hours for you,” he said.
He explained up front how he was able to produce additional vocals and sounds without a band using a loop station. At Glastonbury, his impressive solo performance had people accusing him of lip-syncing and using backing tracks. It obviously irritated him.
It says a lot about his strength as a live performer, though, that he was so good he had to be cheating somehow.
Second song Eraser demonstrated Sheeran’s versatility as a singer-songwriter, with spoken-word verses and a melodic chorus blending seamlessly.
“The last stadium concerts I did in Sydney it rained. It was torrential. But to be honest with you, I loved it. I think it added to the show,” Sheeran said.
“The first place I ever played in Sydney was Hibernian House, and that was to about 60 people. Now there’s 70,000 or more in front of me. I had one hit at the time and it was only a hit here. But it had a ripple effect so I’ll always have fond memories of Australia.”
Asking to see a sea of lights in the crowd, he sang The A Team.
His anecdotes between songs sometimes came out of left field but only reinforced what we already knew –Sheeran is a down-to-earth, normal guy that refuses to let fame change him.
“When I go to a concert I stand completely still, no facial expressions, and just kind of nod my head, even if I love the band. I want to dance but I’m always worried someone is going to be there saying ‘What is he doing?’.
“And then I play to people and see their smiling faces and think why don’t I dance like an idiot? That’s what I want you to do tonight. You’ll never see the person next to you again.
“The best concerts are when you leave dripping in sweat with no voice. Will you get weird with me tonight Sydney?”
Again, Sheeran’s appeal intrigues. A mother with a daughter in her 20s sitting in front of me was screaming and singing and dancing without a care in the world. I saw fans aged five and under and those aged over 80. And all of them knew the words, nodding happily along to Sheeran’s rapped verses if they couldn’t keep up.
Given the diversity of his sound, I wonder if he is trying to find his niche. Or maybe diversity is his niche. There is a common thread running through each song, and that is the tenderness of his lyrics. They are relatable and fundamentally human. Sheeran is the undisputed king of the modern love song, there is no doubt. He manages to tread a fine line between sweet and sappy.
Before singing Dive, he told the crowd this was their “karaoke moment” and spoke about the fun he has spotting the “super dads” in the audience there to protect their children, or the boyfriend who is doing his duty by attending. During the chorus every straightened arm bounced in unison, bathed in red light, at Sheeran’s command. It looked like a hip-hop gig. I saw grandmothers getting down to the beat. There’s that universal appeal again.
Some of the slower album-only songs were a good excuse for a toilet break or a bar run, it seemed, however punters always ran back to their seats for fear of missing out on their favourite Sheeran song.
The upbeat Galway Girl was followed by a moody version of Feeling Good and an Eric Clapton-sounding riff heralded I See Fire. At one point in the set I thought he was going to cover Friday On My Mind but the riff abruptly changed direction.
Photograph was sung to perfection, as was the “favourite song I’ve written so far” – Perfect.
Was his concert worth the traffic headache and late night run home along the M1? My nine-year-old attended the concert with me. We got home at 2am but she was up and dressed, ready and raring to tell her friends at school all about it. Yes, it’s worth it. Sheeran’s voice is a gift. This is an artist at his peak who is clearly enjoying the ride.
As for support Missy Higgins, welcome back. What a talent. And keep an eye out for Irishman Ryan McMullan, who Sheeran can’t praise highly enough. He plays at Lizotte’s next Tuesday, March 20.
The complete set list: Castle On The Hill; Eraser; The A Team; Don’t; Dive; Bloodstream; Happier; I’m a Mess; Take It Back; Galway Girl; Feeling Good; I See Fire; Photograph; Perfect; Nancy Mulligan; Thinking Out Loud; Sing; Shape of You; You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.
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