Ed Sheeran is reminiscing about the first time he played in Cardiff. It was back in the Myspace days, when he had a standing offer to turn up in any living room that would have him, and he thinks it was at a student house for maybe 20 kids. He then uncorks the opening chords to The A Team in front of a crowd reported to be the largest ever assembled for a show in Wales.
Sheeran is a numbers guy. Tonight’s milestone is minor next to the figures put up by his ÷ tour, which ran for more than 250 shows between 2017 and 2019 and ended up the highest grossing and best attended of all time. But his everyman shtick remains effective because of his ordinary look: a busker’s mien of big rhythmic strumming, casual clothes and a happy-to-be-here expression.
Performing in the round, ringed by an enormous screen and a scattering of plectrum-shaped sub-arrays that flicker between show footage and the artwork of his most recent LP, =, he runs laps of the stage, stopping off periodically at any one of five loop stations scattered around its circumference. The outer segment spins, giving each corner of the stadium their moment with Ed. It’s a clever, egalitarian move, allowing for a responsive back and forth that suits him better than the pyro and fireworks that bookend the set.
It also permits him to throw a few curveballs without messing up the DNA of a Sheeran show. There is a weight of expectation on his loop-based setup, with each element of a song assembled on the fly night after night, but it is a stifling way to work. He clearly delights in the creativity involved, yet it can be numbing, like a virtuoso guitarist entering the fifth minute of a complex solo.
Perhaps recognising this, for the first time he has brought a band with him: two guitarists, a bassist, keys and drums. They assist roughly a third of the set from pods orbiting the main stage, leaving Sheeran in the spotlight and preserving the loops as a draw, but also helping certain songs to evolve. At least, that’s the idea.
Opening with Tides and Blow, they conjure a surprising amount of rock heft that is undone by the grating rumble of the badly mixed bass and kick drum. It’s a problem that persists, claiming everything from the Bruce Springsteen pastiche Overpass Graffiti to a medley of collaborations and Thinking Out Loud, which is roared back with gusto regardless.
Largely, Sheeran’s songs are templates – folk Ed, pop-house Ed, ballad Ed – with different colours daubed between the lines. The unflattering mix lays this bare, but his voice cuts through the noise. During Perfect, delivered before a sea of phone lights and couples slow-dancing on the floor, quibbles melt away: it’s easy to sling rocks at music this pat and sentimental, but it’s hard to argue with its resonance. Whether it’s a dozen of them arranged in a uni house or 75,000 in a stadium, Sheeran’s songs matter to people, and that’s truly disarming.