My close friend flew into town to see Ed Sheeran, a musician I had only listened to sparingly. The show was sold out, so I wasn't going to be getting in; I was mostly just looking forward to my friend coming to LA, and was resigned to just waiting with her in line until she went in, and then having a beer at The Blue Boar on Cahuenga while she was at the show. Then, they announced that they would be selling tickets at the door and I took the opportunity to snag one since it's not as if I had a whole bunch else going on that night. The show started, and something happened:
He blew me away.
His debut album, +, doesn't do him justice. While it's certainly a polished record, and it has tracks of startling focus and clarity, it feels like it was put together. There seemed to be too many hands involved in its production, too many opinions that didn't need to be heard. It is vastly overproduced with unnecessary string arrangements, ivory thumping, and a general middle-of-the-road quality that sounds like a lesser Damien Rice or an acoustic Ryan Adams when he isn't trying'which, lately, seems to be pretty often.
His live set, though, is about as stripped down as you can get for a headlining gig: a guitar plugged into a loop pedal, and two microphones'one which loops and another which doesn't. It's minimalist. He walked out onto the stage, and he seemed even smaller than he actually is.
All I kept thinking was that this tiny ginger kid from the UK'a kid who is just coming up on his 21st birthday this year'doesn't look like he could command the attention of a local coffee house audience, let alone an audience at The Hotel Caf? in Los Angeles. He is soft-spoken and polite, aware of his growing fan base but not jaded by fame or the spotlight. His performance, though, is in absolute contrast. He doesn't make a whole lot of eye contact, but you can tell that he feels your presence and wants you to be there. Earnestness can only get you so far, though. I've seen loop pedal musicians before and while some are great, most are trite, and I didn't hold the highest of expectations. And then, he sang.
Anyone who doesn't believe music can change a person'change the world, even'hasn't seen Ed Sheeran play live.
He played a set that was so volcanic in it's strength and magnetism, filled with such intensity and love of music, it left me an emotional wreck at times. With his loop pedal, he was able to be his own percussionist, his own harmonizer, his own beat-boxer, and everything in between. He broke a guitar string mid-song toward the end of the set, and simply ripped it off and continued to play. At one point, while doing percussion solely by hitting his guitar with his palms and fingertips, I could feel my chest literally vibrating from the blast of bass erupting from his amplifiers.
About three or four songs into his set, he began to smile as he played, and stopped mid-song to ask who was harmonizing from the crowd and to say that they sounded really good. No one responded and he kept playing. Not more than two chorus repeats later, he paused again and looked out into the sea of anonymous faces and asked for whoever was doing the harmonies to come up on stage. After a brief moment, Chicago-based artist Melanie Boyna stepped on stage from the crowd, along with two other fans, and began to sing.
For most, bringing a fan or fellow musician on stage is simply a gimmick or something to shake up the stale taste of playing shows every other day on tour. For Ed, I saw something different: appreciation.
What I saw wasn't two musicians harmonizing, but two people appreciating each others vocal abilities, and that is what separates Ed Sheeran from the rest of the pack. He cares about his fans; he wants you to be moved and to enjoy his show. He took the time out before and after the show to talk with fans, let them take photographs, get autographs, and give hugs. It's a little thing, but most musicians don't bother with it, and it says a lot about the ones that do.
The whole set was filled with emotion as he told anecdotes about his inspiration for certain songs'some humorous, most not. He works so hard at all times to make sure the audience is involved, chanting along with the chorus or clapping their hands, separating the crowd by an invisible line and having them harmonize, en masse, with him on different parts of the chorus. His enthusiasm is electric and it can make even the most passive of audience members invested in what's going on in front of and around them. He's not just a musician; he's a performer, and it shows in every ounce of sweat he puts into his shows.
I have seen a lot of things at a lot of shows, but the one thing I hadn't seen until now was someone who could move me to tears with a loop pedal.
Ed Sheeran is going to explode on the mainstream music scene soon'his skills are absurd, and he's scheduled to tour with Snow Patrol from March to May in the US, which will definitely bring him some attention.
The only thing I can hope for is that he begins to gravitate toward recording the sounds of his live shows more than the polished sheen of his first album, because this kid can tear down roofs with his sound at its most basic, and it would be a shame to see him achieve anything less than greatness.