There’s no better place for Ed Sheeran to begin his biggest world tour than under the jagged blue skies of Dublin.
As an ambitious young songwriter, the Englishman drew inspiration from Damien Rice, part of that generation of Irish troubadours fueled by acoustic guitars and crumpled melancholy.
Sheeran took this formula of unplugged angst and brooding male woes, sprayed in a bit of pop gloss, and turned it into world fame.
He’s also one of two performers to ever embark on a stadium tour of Ireland – the other being Bruce Springsteen – and now he’s back for a lap of honor that will go from Croke Park to Cork, Limerick and Belfast .
As with anything Sheeran touches, it’s not pissed at all. It is, however, epic and heartfelt
The carrot-headed titan of the tearful trill arrives in Croker after two warm-up gigs, in little Whelan’s and the slightly larger Vicar Street. On these shows, he treated fans to versions of Rice’s the Blower’s Daughter (good) and Westlife’s Flying Without Wings (the opposite of good).
Everything is so much simpler on the first of two nights at Croke Park, played halfway up from a circular ‘in the round’ stage. Promoting last year’s Equals record, he delivers a warm and stylish performance, with the set split between new album snippets and hits from his catalog.
These songs, new and old, explain exactly why Sheeran is the most listened to artist in the world. The tides, with which it opens, unroll, on the page, like a tearful coming-of-age molasses. “I grew up, I’m a dad now,” he sings, suggesting a millennial Cat Stevens.
But the gooey feelings are tied to a lightning rocker that sounds like The Killers multiplied by Coldplay (the track is co-written by Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid).
As with anything Sheeran touches, it’s not pissed at all. It is, however, epic and heartfelt. And, in a venue the size of Croke Park, epic and heartfelt are all that will really cut it.
Tides is the first song on Equals, Sheeran’s fourth solo album (fifth if you include his collection of 2019 collaborations) and a project that cements his position as pop’s greatest anomaly. He’s an unglamorous boy-next-door type – but with a golden touch that makes Midas yellow with envy.
Equals finds Sheeran at a crossroads as he considers marriage and fatherhood. He’s also, of course, coming to terms with a decade of mind-blowing success. And while Equals isn’t seriously poking fun at the Sheeran format, there is an experimental moment at times. 2step, which comes a third of the way through, for example, opens with a guitar a million miles away from Ben Howard or Durutti Column (if Durutti Column had gone through a Drake-influenced phase).
As a stadium headliner, Sheeran tends toward minimalism: often it’s just him, a guitar, and loop pedals. It’s not that it was a major hurdle: his Divide Tour, from 2017 to 2019, holds the bragging rights of being the highest-grossing of all time, with earnings of more than 800 million euros. .
Sheeran has increased slightly for her new math tour. Six light-up spacers suggesting a mini-me version of U2’s famous claw scene. From these hang smaller screens in the form of plectrums (a strip of four pieces is concealed under the uprights). And during the Sheeran-does-metal (or “metal”) rocker, blown flames shoot upwards. It is, for better or worse, a pure Sheeran.
“I haven’t done this for so long,” he says. “What I wanted to do on this tour is try something a little different.”
He references the backing band, a new addition quickly sent backstage as Sheeran switches to acoustic guitar and serenades Croke Park from a rotating podium. It’s hard not to be impressed by this marriage of music and technology. And the fact that Sheeran doesn’t get motion sickness and doesn’t need to lie down afterwards.
“I’m so glad things like this are back,” says Sheeran, wearing a black jumper with the Dublin crest on the back.
“Aren’t you happy? I forgot how big this venue is and how amazing an Irish crowd can be. I was so nervous. Now that I’m here, I’m so excited.
“I’m so happy to start the tour in Dublin,” he continues, returning to the theme later. “Nothing beats Saturday night at Croker, is there?”
You can’t play in a stadium without hitting hits and Sheeran doesn’t disappoint
You can’t play in a stadium without hitting hits and Sheeran doesn’t disappoint. Shiver is rocket-powered acoustic R&B. And Shape Of You (which comes during the encore) delivers with obvious enthusiasm, with the singer presumably still on top after successfully defending the song against a plagiarism lawsuit last month.
Sheeran’s ability to combine wildly contrasting influences as if it were the most natural thing is underscored by Bloodstream. Built on loops and nervous rhythms, it is both musically complex and yet as simple as a kick in the pants. As a bonus, it will satisfy those wondering what Sting would look like trapped in an elevator with Justin Timberlake.
All is not good, alas, and there’s that inevitable nauseating moment when he reaches Galway Girl’s armed diddley-dees. His love letter to Ireland, the land of his grandparents, is a song that makes you feel like you’ve slipped, hit your head, and woken up in an alternate dimension where Ireland is a huge Carroll gift shop.
It’s icky (a later rendition of the Parting Glass is a better homage to its Celtic roots). Still, Galway Girl is just one hit in a party that fixes Sheeran as an unlikely mix of world-pop Goliath and one of your older English cousins for the summer. And it confirms his status as an artist who has taken the tradition of the dewy-eyed Irish troubadours personified by the Damien Rice generation and transformed it into pop’s most powerful force.