If there were those who thought, or even hoped, that the wheels would come off the Ed Sheeran juggernaut following his rapid rise to stadium status will clearly have to wait a little longer. It seems that nothing – million dollar court cases, the distractions of a celebrity lifestyle, a fairly rubbish third album – can derail the singer. He may have wisely downsized in terms of venues for the moment, but that has only served to increase the hysteria amid a mad scramble for tickets (although those who find themselves turned away at the door or escorted out during the night perhaps don’t seem to have entirely valued the opportunity to be here).
Aside from a roof, some new tunes and the proximity of the back wall, this is essentially the same show that Sheeran brought to Croke Park in 2015. And for the most part it works. Stripped of their production sheen and presented in his loop pedal one man band form his songs are a lot more affecting and the opening half hour – from ‘Castle On The Hill’ to ‘Bloodstream’ – is pretty entertaining. For all his high life status, the singer still cuts an engaging figure on stage and the simpler sound cuts through the arena’s expanse far better than most bands we’ve experienced here. The visual bells and whistles are nice enough but you suspect he could probably do without them.
So far so good but then, with the early big tunes dispatched and the rest waiting in the wings, the set descends into dull balladry. The crowd’s interest starts to wain, the phones capturing every moment in blurry detail become agents of the selfie and as the burble of conversation rises on ‘How Would You Feel’, Sheeran becomes just another acoustic act battling to keep the attention of those at the back of the room. It’s not so much a question of hearing a pin drop as the sounds of pints hitting the floor. A sprightly ‘Barcelona’ pulls it back a little but it takes a bouncy ‘Sing’ to get the gig back on track.
Given where we are, though, the usual set has been rearranged to build to Ed’s big Irish moment. Joined onstage by Beoga, the rather naff ‘Galway Girl’ (prefaced by a snippet of the Steve Earle song) doesn’t hit as much as you might expect, certainly compared to a spirited ‘Nancy Mulligan’ that proves Sheeran’s trad influence wasn’t an entirely awful idea. We can even deal with the drunken Irish dancing and bellowed ‘olé olé’ that precedes the encore – especially when it provides easily the best ten minutes in ‘Shape Of You’ and a ferocious ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Know’.
He’s by no means perfect is Ed Sheeran, but I’d personally rather have a mega pop star who can write a folk song about his grandparents AND collaborate with Stormzy, who hangs out in Whelan’s after the show and who gives you the sense that he could always do something to surprise you. If he fell well short with Divide we can cut him some slack and hope that he has the courage to challenge himself, his audience and that mainstream status next time.