Not many artists can hold nearly 51,000 people rapt with a microphone and an acoustic guitar.
But Ed Sheeran long ago defied the odds of a standard pub musician, using his significant talent and scrappy charm to vault onto the charts and, well, barely ever leave.
Last August, the ginger Brit brought his “Divide” tour to Infinite Energy Arena for a pair of sold-out shows; on Friday, he returned to Atlanta with essentially the same concert – nearly the exact staging and setlist – except this time the sold-out crowd was almost double the size of his two arena performances at a packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
For the last time on his North American tour - the 10th leg (!) - Sheeran trotted onstage in his black layered shirt with a snake slithering through the word “hoax,” slouchy jeans and standard gym sneakers, kicked in his loop pedals and blasted off with his finest song, the driving “Castle on the Hill.”
“This is my last show in the U.S. for a very long time,” he told the crowd, also explaining early in the nearly two-hour set that every sound produced would come from his “loop station.”
Yes, a guy with a cauldron of mostly acoustic-based love songs can command a massive stage with no backing band and no backing tracks with only his emotive, low-tenor voice – which sounded startlingly clear as it rang through the stadium - and self-deprecating humor to carry him.
Sheeran, 27, is aware of his good fortune, too.
“I’ve been playing these songs since I was in small clubs and no one would turn up,” he commented as he glanced around the stadium with a crooked grin.
Playing an array of acoustic guitars – usually with the divide symbol etched in the wood – Sheeran turned sensitive crooner for “The A Team” and prickly for the betrayal anthem, “Don’t,” as the numerous video screens surrounding him flashed shards of ice.
Considering he’s carrying an entire concert, Sheeran works exceptionally hard onstage, evidenced by his sweating and swigging from water bottles throughout. When not leading fans in an overhead-arm-sway-along during the standard ballad “Dive” or basking in the eerie red lighting that complemented the escalating “Bloodstream,” Sheeran roamed the open stage like a stand-up comic.
He joked about the boyfriends and “super dads” who didn’t really want to be in attendance and surmised that about “20 percent” of the audience shared his tendency for awkwardness.
Surely he realizes that gawkiness only endears him more to fans who revel not only in his greeting card love songs, but also his spirited uptempo material.
Watching him bang out a beat on his guitar, guitar pick in mouth, to layer the ground floor of the spirited “Galway Girl” was like witnessing a musical mixologist at work; but just as intriguing was hearing his sparse, original version of “Love Yourself,” the song he wrote when he “was in a bad mood” that turned into a No. 1 worldwide smash for Justin Bieber.
Whether picking at an electric guitar during the achingly romantic wedding song of the decade (the very Van Morrison “Thinking Out Loud”), continuing the swoon-fest with the equally tender “Photograph” and “Perfect” or jolting the crowd to “Sing,” Sheeran effortlessly commanded a very big room.
He returns to touring in early 2019 – Latin America, Asia, Europe – before likely hibernating and working on his next album (could it be “Minus”?). Let’s hope that Everyman charisma stays intact.
Opening for Sheeran was Scottish/Irish power-pop-rock outfit Snow Patrol who, in a karmic twist, had tapped Sheeran to open their U.S. dates on his first overseas tour in 2012 (they played the Tabernacle).
The band – singer/guitarist Gary Lightbody, guitarist Nathan Connolly, bassist Paul Wilson, drummer Jonny Quinn and pianist Johnny McDaid – has been together for 25 years (“We’re old enough to rent a car in America now,” Lightbody quipped) and released their seventh studio album, “Wildness,” earlier this year.
While the young-leaning crowd seemed mostly unfamiliar with Snow Patrol’s music – save for the set-closing dreamscape “Chasing Cars” – the band’s lush sound carried well in the stadium, even if it was a bit subdued for the surroundings.
Their U.S. breakthroughs, the shades-of-Pink-Floyd “Run” and “Chocolate,” from 2003’s “Final Straw” album, were rooted in ethereal beauty, while 2006’s “Open Your Eyes” featured the signature piano that threads many of their songs.
Lightbody was full of gratitude for the band’s crew and to Sheeran and seemed genuinely sad to be playing the last night of the U.S. outing (Snow Patrol heads back to the U.K. for headlining arena shows in a few weeks).
But the band exhibited its best as Lightbody shared his falsetto on the new “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?” – a beautiful, delicate song that went underappreciated in a stadium crowd – and activated the adrenaline for “Just Say Yes,” with its sleek, galloping chorus.
Maybe another round of U.S. “Wilderness” dates in more intimate settings is on the docket for 2019.
Kicking off the night was Lauv, a young singer-songwriter who is making some noise as an emerging artist. His brief set included “Paris in the Rain” and his most familiar song, the earworm “I Like Me Better,” which landed on airplay charts worldwide last year.
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