Ed Sheeran returns to roots of playing to intimate audience at ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

Ed Sheeran taped his second “Austin City Limits” show on Sunday. Photo by Scott Newton, “Austin City Limits”

“Hello, How are you doing?” Ed Sheeran asked the crowd at his “Austin City Limits” taping Sunday night. “I feel like this is going to be a quite fun tonight. Thank you for coming out tonight on a Sunday when ‘Game of Thrones’ is on.”

No, we did not get a reprise of his performance as a guitar-playing soldier in “Game of Thrones,” but what we did get is Sheeran, his guitar, his magical looping machine, some hits and some of his mellower new songs.

The crowd, some of whom had been waiting outside since Saturday night, was with him in a cool, coffee house groove way, not your arena sold-out concert, which Sheeran has become accustomed to singing to since the last time he taped a show three years ago.

“And what a three years it has been,” “ACL” Executive Producer Terry Lickona acknowledged at the start of the show.

Ed Sheeran filled the Moody Theater with music using his voice, a guitar and his looping machine at his “Austin City Limits” taping Sunday.
Photo byScott Newton, “Austin City Limits”

Five songs into the show Sheeran pointed out the difference. He told a brief history of his career. When he was 14 to 20, he said, he was playing in bars and clubs. Then from 20 to 22, he was playing in theaters like this one, where he had to get good at what he called “chat” — that’s talking to the audience about his music. “Now after playing arenas, I’m so bad. I don’t know what to say other than ‘this is cool.’ So I’m going to say that a lot. ‘This is cool.'”

Sheeran didn’t put on any of the pretenses of now being a global rock star. He wore a black “Austin City Limits” T-shirt and black jeans and orange tennis shoes. He focused on the music and having fun.

He encouraged the audience to sing and dance and clap. “This is a concert, first and foremost,” he said. “I’ve got a day off tomorrow. I’m going to lose my voice. I need you to lose your voice as well. It doesn’t matter if you sing out of tune. The person next to you you’ll probably never meet again.”

Sheeran jumped from amp to amp. He worked the looping box, layering his own vocals, drumming on the guitar, clapping and at times the audience. He wasn’t particularly good at the “chat,” but he did tell stories of his two grandmothers. He talked about recording his last album in his house to be close to his grandmother who was in the hospital. Her illness helped him complete one of her dying wishes, to work with his brother, Matthew, a classical composer.  That explains why you can hear strings on his latest album. “So that happened and that’s cool,” Sheeran said.

And he talked about what he did when he got the call that his grandmother had died.

“When anything happens good or bad to me, my knee-jerk reaction is I pick up a guitar,” he said. And then he launched into “Supermarket Flowers,” which he wrote the day his grandmother died.

He also explained the mystery of who the song “Nancy Mulligan” is about — it’s his other grandmother, a Catholic Irish woman, who really did run off with his Protestant Northern Irish grandfather.

He changed up his original lineup as he sensed the the crowd handle more thoughtful songs like “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and “Happier,” and he melded Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” with his “I See Fire.”

Toward the end of the taping, he pointed to a woman with white hair in the crowd and brought her up to the stage. She had been dancing the whole time. “Thank you for dancing,” he told her. “I’m kind of jealous because I want to jump down there and dance. I’ve got a few more songs. This next song is just for you. I want to see those moves.” And then he launched in “Shape of You” and got the whole audience back on their feet, followed by the rapping “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.”

Then an hour and a half after he began, he left the stage with a “Thank you very much ‘ACL.’ Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

It was as if he didn’t quite fathom the number of young girls and their parents, the number of grown women and their dates who had just spent an evening transfixed by seeing Ed Sheeran in an intimate theater, like people at the beginning of his career used to get to do.

The set list:

  1. “Castle on the Hill”
  2. “Eraser”
  3. “The A Team”
  4. “Don’t”
  5. “Happier”
  6. “Bloodstream”
  7. “Feeling Good”/”I See Fire”
  8. “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here”
  9. “Supermarket Flowers”
  10. “Photograph”
  11. “Perfect”
  12. “Nancy Mulligan”
  13. “Thinking Out Loud”
  14. “Shape of You”
  15.  “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.”

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