Ed Sheeran is a big deal. A global superstar. He sells out arenas and stadiums around the world. His last album, “(Divide),” went No. 1 in nearly every country it was released. And Sunday night he played a nearly sold-out headlining gig at KeyBank Center – get this – all by himself.
Just Sheeran, his guitar and a loop pedal. This foot-powered device allows him to layer vocal and guitar parts on top of each in real time. A virtual recording studio, produced and performed by one guy (and likely an engineer backstage), live and in person.
Whatever you think of the guy, if you think his music is sappy, or soft, or silly, even, you couldn’t have denied the fact after seeing this show that this is one heck of an impressive performer. Ambitious and unique, vulnerable and powerful. I don’t know what the record books say, but when was the last time a solo act headlined an arena tour without a band? And managed to fill it with sound?
“(Divide)” follows “(Multiply)” and “(Plus),” and a slew of EPs. The mathematics thesis keeps songs grounded in the simplest truths about love and relationships, growth and loss. Sheeran’s songs cut to the center of a romantic listener’s expectations: three or four minutes of sympathy, validation and celebration.
For me, it conjures the summer between high school graduation and college orientation, when everything felt so big, and you felt so much.
As evidenced by his impressive show, Sheeran felt his own musical interests, too. He could have played it safe, relying on (or hiding behind) a band and backup vocals. He worked his butt off the entire set. It’s not easy to engineer his own audio production with this kind of precision. Imagine a street busker suddenly plopped onto a massive stage. One moment off and his layering could unravel. For one moment toward the end of the set, it did, and he fixed it immediately.
“Castle on the Hill” and “Eraser” opened the set with a band’s worth of rhythm, harmony, beat and energy. And a room full of backup singers.
“Bloodstream” reminded me of early, collegiate John Mayer. That campfire vibe was in full effect even on this big stage. It all felt so intimate, not an easy task for a room this large. His vocal harmonies, also layered by loop pedal, took it to a deep, dense place. It was a rich performance.
“Happier” brought it back down to a small, clean acoustic performance, while still filling the space.
A cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” felt pretty good for a white boy from England. It wasn’t without soul. Again with those layers. This led into his “I See Fire” seamlessly.
He debuted the sweet “Barcelona” for the first time in America, a delight for serious fans. Red and yellow beams lit up an ecstatic crowd. “Photograph” was nostalgic and bittersweet – senior prom in one song. “Perfect” is the wedding (hopefully) years later.
The big hits “Sing” and “The Shape of You,” which he performed on the Grammys earlier this year, closed out a tight and diverse set list. “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” put a bombastic period at the end of this show’s bold sentence.
James Blunt and his band opened the show with an intimate gathering of his own. Blunt is a also a worldwide superstar – everywhere but here. That he’s opening for anyone must get big laughs overseas. Regardless, he’s making a decent down payment on a North American career resurrection (following his 2004 hit “You’re Beautiful”). Like Sheeran, he’s a talented, nice guy who knows exactly what he does, and does it very well. Nice job, guys.
Ed Sheeran, James Blunt
Sunday night in KeyBank Center