Wembley Stadium, London Sheeran commands the vast stage on his own for two hours and thrills the 87,000 audience without any pyrotechnics or grand spectacle
A tiny figure, dwarfed by the Wembley Stadium stage, Ed Sheeran peers out at the audience. “There are,” he says, with an unmistakably nervous laugh, “a hell of a lot of you in here”. Apparently 87,000 tickets have been shifted for the first of his three nights here, an event so momentous, he notes, that they’re recording a live video of the show. “I’ve made a live video before,” he nods, hopefully. “It was filmed at the Bedford pub in Balham”, a venue that, unlike Wembley, also hosts zumba fitness classes and something called the Pram Chorus, at which SW12’s new parents and toddlers enjoy “fun songs and cake”.
Sheeran clearly isn’t the only artist to have ascended from the the pub circuit to international stardom in recent years, although he may well be the only one who’s achieved it without really altering his approach to live performance. A brief, but rapturously received guest appearance from Elton John aside, what’s on offer tonight is essentially what was on offer at the Bedford five years ago: the singer, an acoustic guitar and an effects pedal. Even Sheeran’s loudest detractors might be forced to agree that there’s something incredibly brave – or foolhardy to the point of lunacy – about attempting to entertain 87,000 people entirely alone, without the aid of pyrotechnics, costume changes – Sheeran, as ever, looks as if he’s arrived onstage fresh from sleeping on someone’s sofa – or special effects.
It should, by rights, be a total disaster. No matter how many times they stream your album at home, stadium audiences are supposed to want grand spectacle for their money, and Sheeran’s success is founded on understated, ordinary-bloke chumminess. Instead, it’s a complete triumph. He’s up there for two hours, and the audience’s rapt attention never seems to wander. There’s something very potent about the way he’s somehow capable of projecting said ordinary guy chumminess to the back of the stadium; his delight at singing Elton John’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with the man who wrote it is almost palpable. You’re struck by the sense that Sheeran knows exactly what he’s doing, even when he appears to have completely lost his mind. You’d expect the big hits to go over well, and they do – The A Team and Thinking Out Loud unsurprisingly become vast sing-alongs. But three songs in, he announces he’s going to play Take It Back, a song that only appeared among the extra tracks on the deluxe edition of his last album. Delving into obscurities from your back catalogue is held to be the quickest way to lose an audience at a vast stadium gig, short of stamping on a kitten, but Sheeran pulls it off, seguing into a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition.
It’s a state of affairs aided by the fact that, improbably enough, the venue boosts rather than swamps his sound. His jagged strumming and the rhythm tracks he creates by slapping his hand against the body of his acoustic guitar boom and echo around the stadium – it sounds thrillingly chaotic and tumultuous, not adjectives usually associated with his recorded oeuvre. He ends with his biggest hit, Sing, but beforehand plays You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, a song he performed onstage at the Bedford in 2010. Then, it sounded prickly and defiant, a cocky up-yours from a cottage industry artist to a music business that didn’t want to know. Tonight, it roars joyously along, as well it might: every bullish suggestion in the lyrics, including the one about playing stadiums, having turned out to be true.
This article was written by Alexis Petridis, for theguardian.com on Sunday 12th July 2015 13.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010