A young man with boyishly handsome looks and a humble nature stands on stage. Spotlights of indigo, pink, blue and violet colors stream into the audience, gently caressing the venue seats and walkways as they pan slowly to the music of a looped backing track created live just moments before. The room is fully hushed. As the song culminates, the lights consolidate from twelve to six to three until finally there is but one blue spot shining only on the singer. The backing track stops, leaving only the sound of his voice over the microphone, bringing chills to the audience. Just when it seems the performance cannot possibly become more moving, the microphone’s volume slowly begins to lower until there is no amplification whatsoever. Our performer now stands alone in the dim blue light, singing absolutely a cappella, with nothing but the power of his voice in an arena occupied otherwise by complete and utter silence. And oh yeah… 18,000 people. Our young man is Ed Sheeran, and our venue is Madison Square Garden. A moment iconic in nature, he has managed to completely quiet a sold out crowd at one of the world’s largest stadiums, creating just one of many memorable experiences during an unreal performance comprised of talent, honesty, humility and in my opinion a little bit of magic.
All great concerts begin with an unexpectedly enjoyable opener—one you don’t just sit through begrudgingly while waiting for the headliner to arrive. Ideally, the opening act is intriguing, talented and entertaining enough that you become hyped for more music as opposed to growing impatient. Ed’s support act for Friday night, Tori Kelly, was just that. Her style, slightly reminiscent of artists like Norah Jones, JoJo and India Arie was light, refreshing yet poignant and made me hopeful for what is to come in terms of new female perspectives in the pop genre. With all the criticism our divas of pop receive for having a lack of reputable vision, no matter how disillusioned that thought may be, it is encouraging to know young, thoughtful, and unafraid ladies are still being cultivated in the music industry. With Tori Kelly’s seasoned voice and cleverly woven runs so perfectly executed, it’s clear this girl is going places. Her female approach to the singer-songwriter genre of pop was just the palate cleanser I needed before Ed stepped onstage.
For his opening song, “Give Me Love,” Ed enlisted the help of the audience, dubbed by Sheeran for the evening as his own personal Gospel Choir of New York, to ensure the impact of the song in live form would not pale in comparison to that of “Give Me Love”’s identity on the album. The recorded version of the tune is made powerful and heart-wrenching by the manner in which the music builds upon itself to a heavy climax, followed by a simplified unison clap to which the backup singers chant the chorus lines, “My-my-my, Give me love.” How would he manage to achieve a similar effect without any backup musical support? For starters, Sheeran uses a Boss loop station to record his own backing track live, on the spot. He records and builds beats, chords, simulated drumming and backup vocals on his own, playing them back live to complete the package. As he made his way through the song, stacking each element one by one, he then split the crowd in half, demonstrating to each side the harmonies they would sing with an emphatic, “Repeat after me!” The result: an expertly executed instrumental track that brought the chorus to an uplifting high, followed by a complete drop out of the music, leaving his 18,000 strong choir’s powerful and booming two party harmony accompaniment to fill out the rest of the song. In that moment, I realized I was more than an audience member; I was a part of the show.
The audience participation at Sheeran’s show was unparalleled. I almost forgot I was at a performance, because the singing of harmonies, dancing, clapping, snapping and arm waving were more indicative of the things I do when I’m alone in my room listening to tunes than they were of typical concert behavior. There was no fear that I would look silly screaming “HELL YEAH!” when directed, because at this show you were more likely to be considered the black sheep if you were not participating. This inclusiveness proved that even a non-fan could enjoy themselves, as a gentleman in front of me who had obviously been dragged to the gig by his wife was seen dancing, clapping and nodding his head in approval by the end of the night.
Those who came to the show already a fan? They were obviously dedicated: donning costumes, carrying illumined homemade signs and giant posters. During Ed’s performance of “Kiss Me,” a gorgeous ballad to which he dedicated to his recently engaged friends, a sea of orange paper hearts could be seen held up throughout the crowd. A fan had organized the gesture via social media and passed them out before the show began. During the song they all lifted up the hearts for Ed to see, each marked with the same two words, “Thank you!” Moving, to say the least, was this act of fan appreciation the likes of which I have never seen at concert. Ed’s fans are more than just listeners who download and tweet and share and like his music. They are a rare form of fans that have a genuine vested interest in helping Ed’s dreams become a reality. And in reciprocation, Ed gives them mutual respect and a show devoid of a fourth wall that makes them feel like their presence with him is just as important as their interest in him.
Coursing his way through the set list, highlights included fan favorites like “Small Bump,” a touching homage to unborn children lost due to miscarriage. The crowd was instructed to snap quietly as the simplistic notes were delicately plucked on the guitar. It gave me chills to hear Sheeran sing lightly the lyrics, “Maybe you were needed up there, but we’re still unaware as why,” while nearly 20,000 people respectfully snapped to the beat.
Ed went on to perform “Wake Me Up” a silly love song detailing the little moments that make young love interesting, and “Lego House,” Sheeran’s second major US radio hit. The live versions of these songs were far improved from their recorded counterparts both vocally and in instrumentation. Ed’s first album, “+” was released over two years ago, and many songs were written and produced much earlier than that. Ed has since come a long way and has continued to grow his talents. Madison Square Garden proved not only that his songs stand the test of time but also that as an artist he never stops improving, even on his existing music.
To mix it up, Ed Sheeran performed a few unlikely covers including “Wayfaring Stranger,” Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” and a traditional Irish folksong, “The Parting Glass.” His implementation of these iconic songs into his set served to demonstrate his true love and appreciation of great music as well as indicate that his first album alone is not a true reflection of his full range of capabilities.
In addition, Ed treated his fans to a few very special exclusives, including a cameo performance by Taylor Swift, who took Ed on tour with her for nine months this past year. Before bringing Swift onstage he gave a heartfelt thank you to her for allowing him the opportunity to see and perform for America. Wearing an “I Heart Ed” shirt featuring a glittering UK flag, Taylor’s pride for Ed was obvious as they performed their duet “Everything Has Changed” using the original two guitars the pair wrote the song on months ago. Sheeran also debuted a new song off his highly anticipated second album, set to drop some time in 2014. “New York” featured yet another set of authentic lyrics and previewed Sheeran’s maturing point of view, yielding nothing but excitement from the crowd for his long awaited sophomore release.
Ed began his encore set with his commercially under-recognized “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” a rap track that made me question how this man, now spitting the wickedest of verses, was the same who minutes before was making women swoon with his lovey, gentle, full of heart ballads. “YNMIDNY” is sick, to say the least, displaying that in addition to being an innovator in solo performance Sheeran is also an out of this world wordsmith. With roots in the underground British hip-hop scene, Ed smashed the crowd at MSG with his coming of age tale about staying true to himself in a world of commercially compromised record labels. There were times he flowed so quickly that his lines were almost indecipherable, but that’s exactly how I like my rap: a little “Whoa.”
Sheeran closed the show with his chart topping single, “The A Team,” which you might say he can attribute a large majority of his success thus far to. It was nice to see someone not only willing, but eager, to cap off a massive performance like Madison Square Garden with the song that, while not necessarily indicative of his full scope as an artist, essentially brought him to where he is today. He is a humble man, a quality to which his foundation in family and friends is likely to be attributed. Both on stage and off, he and the people he surrounds himself with are all genuine, down-to-earth and more than anything appreciative of great art. I was fortunate enough to attend the MSG after party, held at a local NYC pub, meeting Ed, his family and his friends. It was truly inspiring to be assured that what you see with Sheeran is exactly what you get. I’d like to take this time to thank Ed, his parents John & Imogen, his brother Matt, his friends, poet & author Jodi Ann Bickley, musician Antonio Lulic, poet Musa Okwonga, Tori Kelly and her vocal coach Billy Purnell for being so welcoming and friendly to us that night. (If any of y’all are ever in Austin, I’d be happy to return the favor!) There is truly not an ounce of smugness within Ed Sheeran or his circle, both an exciting and rare find in this industry.
So it is no wonder that he has sold fifteen million albums worldwide and can attract people from across the globe to his shows, no matter the location. I flew thousands of miles from Texas to New York City just to have the opportunity to see him perform live and solidify his success by selling out three nights at Madison Square Garden, a feat not often achieved even by musicians of legendary impact. His music, while organic and artfully constructed does not naturally lend itself to a venue of this size. One man and an acoustic guitar singing songs written in his childhood bedroom you might say is better off at a coffee shop, pub or small capacity neighborhood venue and you might be right… unless you are talking about Ed Sheeran. On Friday night, Ed spoke to the crowd of screaming fans about his initial doubts that he would ever play a show in a space with capacity larger than 200 people. Would his method be intriguing and powerful enough to move a large, nay, colossal crowd? If I had not experienced it firsthand, I would probably have said no. But what makes Ed Sheeran’s live performance different is that with his genius looping technique and his sheer (pun intended) passion for the music, you are not simply viewing a show—you are truly in the presence of art in creation. Because Sheeran performs absolutely solo without even a band, pre-recorded backing track or backup singer, he relies fully on trusting himself and his vision to piece together the aspects of his music necessary for the full effect. It is risky, it is interesting and more than anything it is impressive.
This unique kaleidoscope of talents and rare qualities, paired with an undeniably lacking ego and overwhelming appreciation for his fans made Ed Sheeran’s MSG show the single best live performance experience I have ever been a part of. I am not a professional music critic, nor do I have anything to gain from praising Sheeran’s performance. I am simply an everyday Texas girl and consumer of wonderful music who knows what she likes and recognizes something very special when she sees it. So thank you, Ed, for a wonderful show, but more than that thank you for the lovely source of inspiration to chase the seemingly impossible. Because the motivation I have gained from seeing you achieve your dreams may one day end up in me fulfilling one of mine.