At exactly 8:30 p.m. the lights went off and a 30-second long ear-splitting squeal rose in pulsating waves throughout the darkened Frank Erwin center. Some of us questioned whether British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran had the following to pull off a solo headlining arena tour (spoiler: he does), but there were never any doubts about the makeup of his fan base. A rough, unscientific headcount during the brief, well-received set by opener Ben Kweller, a last minute add to the bill, revealed the crowd to be, mostly young and at least 80 percent female.
As Sheeran hit the stage the ecstatic shrieks reached a fever pitch. He barreled into an amped up rendition of “I’m a Mess” turning the relatively sedate recorded love song off his 2014 album “X” into a declaration of passion, wailing on his acoustic guitar with string breaking, body pounding brutality. It was an impressive display that set the tone for a night that found the artist alone on stage with his guitar, aided only by a loop pedal, coaxing an extraordinary range of variations and textures out of his catalog of standard pop songs.
Sheeran is an unlikely sex symbol. A red-headed, ordinary faced, young lad you’d “never want to see shirtless.” This show was the kick off of the non-festival portion of his U.S. tour and early in his set he reminisced about his first trip to Austin. Back in 2012, coming off a hot run at the Brit Awards he came to play South by Southwest. “No one had a clue who I was,” he said. But he warmly recalled a bunch of weirdos who were willing to sing off-key and get down with him, and urged the Erwin Center crowd to do the same.
“Don’t worry about if you’re singing off key or what the guy next to you thinks,” he said, calling on the audience to join him on a no holds barred, sing ’til your hoarse marathon night.
Then, with a mosaic of different sized projection screens with images that ranged from retro robots to a lone skateboarder to artistic treatments of Sheeran himself, he launched into of “Nina” splicing it with Blackstreet’s “No Diggety.” That was hot. But his next trick, to take the acoustic rap track “Take It Back” which finds Sheeran flexing a serious, credible flow, and mash it up first with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and then segue into Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” was outstanding. Sheeran might have come onto the scene as an oddball teen idol, but he’s got serious chops.
When he slowed it down with “Photograph,” a song about love and longing, a sea of cell phone lights lit up the Erwin Center and watching thousands of young women swaying together was genuinely moving. This was the real deal, sincere music that’s powerful because it’s able to communicate something universally relatable. That’s pop music at its best. It has the characteristics of cookie cutter manufactured music that commercial radio spins on endless rotation, but it hasn’t lost the genuine heart.
Love songs are Sheeran’s calling card and as he played his most famous “Thinking Out Loud,” a charming moment played out in the main entrance to the floor seats as a dapper dressed young man proposed to his lady. She said yes and a circle of folks who noticed what was happening cheered while they slow danced through the rest of the song. It felt somehow more special than the couple who somehow convinced Sheeran to let them get on stage (“I never do this,” he said) and played out a long-winded proposal in front of the whole auditorium.
The main part of the show ended with Sheeran once again imploring even the most tone deaf audience members to sing with him so he could break the arena down by sections for an A Capella round of “Give Me Love.” The wildly screaming ladies weren’t willing to let him go so he came back, of course, for an epic mega mix that included snippets of Iggy Azaelea’s “Fancy” before taking it out with the best dance party song in his catalog “Sing.” He left the stage around 10:30 leaving many a young lady swooning, a few dudes who didn’t come to the show to propose feeling awkward and one music critic feeling significantly less cynical than she was at the start of the night.