Ed Sheeran recalls the first time he played in Cardiff. It was back in the days of MySpace, when he had a standing offer to show up at any salon that got it, and he thinks it was at a student house for maybe 20 kids. He then uncorks the opening chords of The A Team in front of a crowd that is said to be the largest ever assembled for a show in Wales.
Sheeran loves numbers. Tonight’s milestone is minor next to the numbers from his ÷ tour, which ran for more than 250 shows between 2017 and 2019 and ended up being the highest-grossing and best-attended of all time. But his everyday man thing remains effective because of his ordinary look: a busker look with big rhythmic strums, casual clothes and a happy-to-be-here expression.
Performing in a circle, surrounded by a huge screen and a scattering of plectrum-like sub-arrays that flicker between show footage and artwork from his latest album, =, he runs around the stage, s periodically stopping at one of five loop stations scattered around its circumference. The outdoor segment spins, giving every corner of the stadium its moment with Ed. It’s a smart, egalitarian move, allowing for a responsive back-and-forth that suits him better than the pyro and fireworks closing the set. .
It also allows him to throw a few curveballs without messing up the DNA of a Sheeran show. There’s a weight of expectation to its loop-based setup, with every element of a song put together on the fly night after night, but it’s a stifling way to work. He clearly revels in the creativity involved, but it can be numbing, like a virtuoso guitarist entering the fifth minute of a complex solo.
Perhaps recognizing this, he brought a band with him for the first time: two guitarists, a bassist, keyboards and drums. They assist about a third of the set from pods orbiting the main stage, leaving Sheeran in the spotlight and preserving loops as a draw, but also helping some songs evolve. At least, that’s the idea.
Opening with Tides and Blow, they conjure up a surprising amount of rock weight that’s undone by the grating growl of poorly blended bass and kick drum. It’s a lingering issue, claiming everything from Bruce Springsteen’s Overpass Graffiti pastiche to a mix of collaborations and Thinking Out Loud, which returns with gusto regardless.
For the most part, Sheeran’s songs are patterns — folk Ed, pop-house Ed, ballad Ed — with different colors smeared between the lines. The unflattering mix lays that bare, but her voice cuts through the noise. During Perfect, delivered before a sea of phone lights and slow-dancing couples on the floor, the quibbles disappear: it’s easy to throw stones at such soft, sentimental music, but hard to argue with its resonance. Whether it’s a dozen of them arranged in a college house or 75,000 in a stadium, Sheeran’s songs matter to people, and it’s truly disarming.