With zero fanfare, Ed Sheeran strolled out onstage.
As he plowed into “Give Me Love,” his only accompaniments his acoustic guitar, a looping mic and pedal and a wall of speakers that doubled as projection screens, the British heartthrob was bombarded with a cascade of shrieking usually reserved for the high-cheekboned glamour of One Direction.
Yes, the ginger-headed singer-songwriter with the colorful sleeve tattoo, rumpled pants and T-shirt is quite the magnet for the high school and college set, his poetic valentines a soothing tonic in an era of AutoTune and unremarkable dance-pop.
Though he’s quietly built the kind of following that can sell out the Tabernacle on a recently launched headlining tour in the U.S. after just one hit (“The A Team”) – and, as he proved during his set at last month’s Star 94 Jingle Jam concert in Gwinnett, hold 10,000 people rapt – Sheeran is unfazed by the commotion.
Gracious, yes. Charming, absolutely. But he’s steadfast in his commitment to stripped-down folk-pop, a one-man band capable of commanding a room with nothing onstage besides his instrument and a bottle of water.
All this and he’s a few weeks from turning 22.
He also had a few ground rules that he announced at the start of the show: “I’m Ed. I entertain. You’re the crowd. You sing as loud as you want.”
For close to two hours, Sheeran struck a balance between street-corner troubadour (the sparse “Small Bump,” a tender ballad about losing a child) and hip beat-master (he explained to the crowd before “Grade 8″ how he builds beats on the spot, an unusual, but welcome, music lesson).
While it was heartening to see this mostly young crowd screaming for an actual musician, it was even more inspiring to witness Sheeran’s confidence in getting the hyped-up fans to stop chattering and listen.
As he did at the Gwinnett show last month, Sheeran asked for quiet so he could properly record the loops for his version of “The Wayfaring Stranger” (when one fan broke the silence by screeching, “I love you, Ed!”, he shot back, “If you love me, you’ll be quiet!” And it worked). The lovely folk song was captivating under Sheeran’s vocal guidance, as he reached back to his British soul roots to sing deeply and passionately.
When, a couple of songs later, he dug into Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” which, like most of his performance, included much audience call-and-response, it was a moment when you realized how good this young man is for music in general.
He perpetuates honest musicianship, encourages fans to check out the classics that inspired him and turns his songs into music lessons. It’s no wonder he’s garnered the respect of veterans such as Elton John.
Sheeran is also a generous musician, as he invited opener Foy Vance back onstage to sing “one of those slow-dancing songs,” the lovely “Kiss Me,” and, during the encore, brought out his other openers, Rizzle Kicks, for the energetic “You Need Me,” which demonstrated Sheeran’s love of Eminem’s music. The song was a 10-minute exercise in crowd interaction, rhythm and impressive rapping.
But the thing that makes Sheeran so unique, despite the splashes of Jason Mraz, John Mayer and even Howie Day (remember him?) in his music, is his unabashed allegiance to meaningful songcraft. “The A Team,” which ended his set with the requisite singalong, isn’t a textbook hit, yet it became one on its own merits.
And while Sheeran will be exposed to entirely new audiences as the hand-picked opener on Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour (at Philips Arena April 18-19), it’s a pretty sure bet that even that blast of commercial exposure won’t alter his musical intentions.
(For more photos from Monday’s show, check out our gallery.)
By Melissa Ruggieri, The Music Scene