Concert review: Ed Sheeran at Nationwide Arena

Joel Oliphint

For the 101st show of Ed Sheeran’s tour, the hugely popular, 26-year-old English singer-songwriter had the stage all to himself.

In concert, Sheeran strips his radio-pervasive songs down to just an acoustic guitar, which he runs through a loop pedal in order to layer the songs with all manner of riffs and percussive slaps. Most singer-songwriters at the arena level go the full-band route, but Sheeran’s approach is pretty similar to when he began blowing up in the U.S. about five years ago.

But the one-man-band approach and a disheveled, red mop of hair are really the only unique things about Sheeran, who, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, played to a packed crowd on Tuesday for the first of a two-night stand at Nationwide Arena. The audience comprised every age group imaginable, with more women than men, but even a white-haired, mustachioed arena usher was singing along as he traversed the aisles.

Sheeran performed in front of a tower-like structure covered in screens and lights, and the themes and visuals for this Tower of Sheeran changed with each song. “Photograph” featured cascading Polaroids of Sheeran while retro video-game imagery covered the tower on smash-hit “The A Team” (the one about temperature-sensitive angels). During “Perfect,” rose petals rained down on Sheeran’s digital visage, and for the Grammy-winning “Thinking Out Loud,” the Tower of Sheeran looked like a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life, with orcas swimming through a sparkly cosmos.

Even as he filled a giant arena, in between songs Sheeran maintained the British version of the shy-guy, what-a-dope-am-I persona. His self-deprecating banter focused mainly on things he says he’s not good at (playing piano, attending concerts, appealing to dads and boyfriends) and imploring the crowd to sing loudly and dance and don’t be all shy like he is when he’s not performing in front of thousands of people.

Remember when Taylor Swift used to act surprised every time people clapped for her or gave her an award? Sheeran has a bit of that going on, but with him it actually feels pretty genuine. Even when he pandered to the crowd by leaving the stage and returning adorned in a Blue Jackets jersey, it came off like a sweet gesture.

Still, despite Sheeran’s aw-shucks persona and widespread popularity, his banal love songs seemed to blend together, and by the end of the evening, the looped-guitar approach grew tiresome (as did the intermittent, almost hip-hop songs). Smacking a guitar’s sound hole to mimic a bass drum kick is a mildly interesting gimmick, but the novelty quickly fades.

The main question going into the show was, how does a guy who looks and sounds pretty similar to a subway busker end up filling arenas and selling millions upon millions of albums all over the world?

Other than the Tower of Sheeran behind him, Sheeran presents himself like the anti-pop star, and perhaps that’s part of the reason he goes over so well. He’s the fulfillment of the “Sesame Street” philosophy that says we can be whatever we want to be if we dream big enough and believe in ourselves. It worked for Ed Sheeran, right? And he’s just a scruffy, insecure dude who can’t play piano very well. He brings the carpenter from his stage crew onstage to accompany him for a song because, yes, Sheeran is a popular musician, but more importantly he is also a very nice guy.

After all, if a guy not named Garth Brooks can play Nationwide Arena two nights in a row with just his acoustic guitar, then maybe “Sesame Street” was right. Maybe anything is possible.