Ed Sheeran – Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland, 12/12/2015

Ed Sheeran 2012Ed Sheeran, perhaps to make up for the fact that his show comprised only one musician, packed the undercard at his tour-ending show at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium last night. Or perhaps, given that this would be the last performance in, as he repeatedly reminded us, a four-and-a-half-year tour, he was minded to depart with the proverbial bang rather than whimper. At any rate, three support acts made for a comprehensively entertaining night out.
First on the bill was Foy Vance, a poor man’s Hozier from County Down. An agreeable, if ultimately forgettable, performer, Vance played a twenty-minute set with an hour’s emotion crammed into it. And this, in the end, wasn’t an entirely good thing — a truly affecting song needs range, dynamics, light and shade, but Vance launched into every song as though his life depended upon emoting it into submission. He’s a perfectly pleasant singer, hunched over his guitar for all but the last show of his set, but in the end, his presence at the foot of the bill was inessential.
Next up was Passenger. I gave Passenger — Michael Rosenberg to his closer friends — a lukewarm review when he played Auckland’s Civic Theatre earlier in the year. I promised myself to approach last night’s show with an open mind; Passenger rewarded my openness with a tighter, sharper set than he had played in February. Gone were the long, rambling between-song speeches, replaced with carefully-crafted nuggets of folk-pop. He still plays every song with a capo up around the ninth fret of his acoustic guitar, and sings each number in a slightly annoying, slightly sibilant hamsterwarble, but — maybe it was the sheer exuberance of a crowd that was, by now, starting to fill up Mount Smart Stadium — I found his style less grating and more engaging than once I had. His most impressive moment was yet to come, but as he left the stage last night, he left a considerably more favourable impression.
Rudimental were the top of the support-act bill, for reasons that still escape me. While the band do share a songwriting credit with Ed Sheeran for the song Bloodstream, they have little in common with Sheehan’s style, their music run-of-the-mill drum-and-bass with a rotating cast of singers ranging from rich and mellow to soaringly fierce to simply loud and irritatingly yelly. Perhaps in an act of self-aware criticism, the stadium’s sound system failed half-way through their third song; Rudimental came back on stage five minutes later to complete their set.
All of the foregoing, of course, was simply by way of warming up a crowd that, frankly, needed little warming up. Sheeran has built up a mighty following over the last few years, partly through dogged, endless, determined gigging, and partly through simply playing good music really, really well. Before the show began, I was questioning the wisdom of one man, alone on stage with his guitar, performing in a stadium setting — it’s a format, surely, that belongs in a smaller venue, a club ideally, with smoke and tables littered with cocktail glasses and a single spotlight trained on a singer who hardly needs a microphone. But Sheeran brought something new to the table. He explained, after opening with I’m A Mess, that his performance would be entirely live, but as he played he would be looping the riffs and vocal lines he performed using pedals by his monitor speakers. Pushing the very limits of “live,” then, but Sheeran used what could have been little more than a gimmick to very great effect. A typical song, then, might see him tapping out a rhythm on the body of his guitar, then looping that rhythm while he chopped out a tune on the strings. It’s live, but it’s not — it’s recorded, but not pre-recorded.
But this is all philosophical speculation. In reality, it was a remarkably effective way of filling out what would, otherwise, have been a much thinner, much more one-dimensional show, loops creating textures and rhythms that would have been impossible to achieve alone any other way.
The other drawback to a one-man stadium show is the fact that there’s, well, only one man on stage. The obligatory huge screens filled the stage behind Sheeran, sometimes simply showing him closeup, helpful for those of us in the cheap seats — anywhere more than twenty yards from the front of stage — who could barely pick out a little ginger-and-black shape on the stage, and sometimes — during Lego House, say, or You Need Me, I Don’t Need You — playing videos for the songs.
Sheeran’s been touring for a long time, and it shows — he’s a confident, engaging performer who knows all the buttons to push to get the reactions he wants from his crowd. While Foy Vance dedicated a song to Jonah Lomu, and earned a cheer in the process, Sheeran walked out on stage in a 2015 All Blacks jersey; when he turned his back on the audience at the end of the first song, to swap guitars, he showed a large 11 and the word Lomu across his back. Now that’s how you play a crowd, and that’s how you earn not just a cheer but a monstrous roar of approval.
In a set that lasted an hour and forty-five minutes, then, Ed Sheeran managed to hold a 50,000-strong stadium audience captivated for the duration. He played hard, a dynamic performance that must, surely, leave the man exhausted — the entire show was down to one performer, and he worked hard for his money last night. He ended the performance with Sing, leading the audience in the chorus until he set up yet another loop on his guitar, put it down on the floor of the stage and walked off as the crowd sang the song until the house lights came back up.
So was it a live show? Probably. Was it a good show? Undeniably. But the story didn’t quite end there. At the end of his opening act, Passenger teased the crowd with mention that he’d be busking in Auckland today. Mid-morning, tweets announced a free show in Aotea Square. On a warm, sunny early-summer Auckland afternoon, Passenger played a half-hour set to a couple of hundred fans, many still wearing last night’s Ed Sheeran t-shirts and wristbands. It’s the third time I’ve seen him this year now, and the best. He began his career as a busker, and it’s clearly what he enjoys best — and all credit to him for this bonus.

Steve McCabe