Ed Sheeran isn’t a band, but he sounds like one. Instead, Sheeran is a folk/pop singer whose footwork wizardry with a pedal board makes him a one-man band who easily commands an arena audience of nearly 16,000. It’s part of the reason he is, as his opener, James Blunt, put it, “the biggest male solo artist in the world today,” which is no exaggeration.
Thursday night, Sheeran opened his 2017 North American tour at the Sprint Center. The show sold out within minutes, though it was Sheeran’s fifth performance in Kansas City – four at the Sprint Center, one at Arrowhead Stadium – since 2013. His popularity is skyrocketing and Thursday night he showed why.
Much of it has to do with his personality, which is equal parts humility with an self-effacing charm. It’s not often that I see something for the first time at a show but it happened this evening. About four songs in, before he performed “Dive,” Sheeran noticed that a young fan (a girl he initially thought was a boy) was holding her ears as if the sound was too loud. He summoned a member of his road crew, who, by the next song, emerged with a set of protective headphones, which Sheeran himself took into the crowd and delivered to the young lady. It interrupted the show for a few minutes but the slight inconvenience was worth every second for Sheeran, who came off as something of a superhero to the rescue.
Beyond his compassion for a youngster in the front rows of a show, Sheeran’s appeal is about his music, which is groovy and catchy, and his lyrics, which are naked and confessional and which, truthful or not, portray a guy who really seems to want to settle down with the lady he loves but isn’t going to commit impulsively. Whatever the situation or his intentions, his heart often gets bruised, which inspires him to retreat and lick his wounds in the form of ballads about love and heartbreak.
He opened with “Castle on the Hill,” a heartwarming narrative about his upbringing that, thanks to all the effects he musters to accompany his guitar, sounded like a U2 arena ballad –lots of bombast and melodrama decorated with some Edge-style guitar chimes.
Sheeran is touring off his third album, “Divide” (the actual title is “÷”), which he featured widely on his set list. He followed “Castle” with “Eraser,” a “Divide” song about temptation and substance abuse and how it can alleviate the sting of an unsatisfied life. At his best, Sheeran writes openly in the first-person, telling candid tales of success, conquest, failure and redemption, an honesty that further connects him to his diehard fans.
The sound in the arena was solid and clean. But that didn’t completely alleviate what was missing: a full live band. Sheeran is deft and clever when it comes to composing and mustering his backup sounds via pedals and effects, but as adequate and convincing as they may be, they can’t replace real, live, organic instruments, particularly drums and percussion.
Nonetheless, Sheeran had no problem charming and winning over a crowd that sang along boisterously to nearly every song, both when it was asked to but also on its own.
There is room to pick on some of his lyrics, which can swerve easily into charlatan-hood, especially when his intent is to romance the ladies, as in “Perfect,” a “kiss-me-slow” ballad that sounds like a kissing cousin to Eric Clapton’s “You Look Wonderful Tonight,” and in the lustful “Shape of You,” which touches all the points John Mayer fondled in “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” But even his most maudlin lyrics seemed to connect viscerally with his audience, most of whom were women of all ages but also with some of the men those women arrived with.
Behind Sheeran there was plenty of visual stimulation along the very large bank of video screens that filled the stage. Some of it was sensible – live footage from the stage – some of it was erratic and distracting, especially considering the only action on stage was coming from one guy with a guitar.
Sheeran, however, overcame all of that, thanks to a vibrant personality that gets a booster shot from his British brogue, his guitar play, most of which delivered lots of percussive heft, and his most engaging songs. The sing-alongs all evening were impressive.
Other highlights: “The A Team,” his first Top 20 hit in America; “Nancy Mulligan,” dedicated to his grandmother, an Irish Catholic who neglected her parents’ warnings and married his grandfather, a Northern Irelander; “Photograph,” which he said was written mostly during a stay at Kansas City’s Intercontinental Hotel; “Galway Girl,” a jaunty folk-rock tune with a heavy Celtic flavor; and “Sing,” a jive-y, jumpy, funky soul song that gave Sheeran another chance to show off his falsetto and which ended his first set.
He returned for a two-song encore: the libidinous “Shape of You,” then the defiant breakup/go-away rap anthem, “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” On that one, Sheeran turned up the effects and sped up the lyrics, inflaming the mood in the place and allowing everyone to neglect or forget that the wall of sound they were hearing was produced by one creative gent.
James Blunt: Backed by a well-honed four-piece band, Blunt, a skilled performer, opened the evening with a 40-minute set that focused on his latest record, “The Afterlove,” including “Make Me Better,” which he cowrote with Sheeran. He also sang his new single, “OK” and the love song that made him famous in America in 2005: “You’re Beautiful.”
Ed Sheeran: Castle on the Hill; Eraser; The A Team; Don’t; New Man; Dive; Bloodstream; Happier; Galway Girl; Feeling Good; I See Fire; Supermarket Flowers; Photograph; Perfect; Nancy Mulligan; Thinking Out Loud; Sing. Encore: Shape of You; You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.
James Blunt: Time of Our Lives; Someone Singing Along; Heartbeat; Don’t Give Me Those Eyes; Make Me Better; Bartender; You’re Beautiful; OK; Bonfire Heart; 1973.