So this is what the mainstream looks like. While charts and record sales may be a nebulous concept, pick your way through the streets leading to GAA headquarters and you get a sense how a platinum album translates in real life. Which means virtually the same as any other large scale Irish show – be it the Script, U2, One Direction, even Bruce Springsteen (and we wouldn’t be surprised if most of the hats and flags balanced on wonky tables everywhere read Garth rather than Ed a year or so ago). The fact that it’s Ed Sheeran that they’ve come to see is still a strange one though. From open mic nights and grime collaborations to studied musicianship and as many shows as he could find to play, he’s not your typical global megastar.
Nor is he your typical stadium act. This is basically the same kind of show as you’ll have seen at any point in his career – one scruffy bloke, a couple of acoustic guitars and an array of loop pedals (exactly the same set up that we saw in a local pub the other night, in fact). It’s a very dressed up version, for sure, but the success of the night still rests on one pair of shoulders. The task has been beyond others before (see 1D here last summer) and, in truth, Sheeran isn’t really up to it either.
The best you can probably expect from shows like this is a big opening, grand finale and a couple of key moments in-between. We don’t really get the first part and those mid set highs are a little short on the ground too. While his dedication to the one man band cause is to be admired, it often fails to cut through in the great outdoors – robbing the songs of a much needed punch. ‘Bloodstream’ manages to connect though, as does the ‘Don’t’ / ‘No Diggity’ / ‘Nina’ medley, and for a while it looks like this might work. Even his Hobbit soundtrack contribution ‘I See Fire’ sounds pretty good.
What the show really needs though is a spot of crowd pleasing and so, for the second night running, Kodaline pop up to wild applause. Clearly another act that the mainstream have taken to their hearts, for us the comparison just makes Sheeran more of a cherishable anomaly. While he stands there grinning with his mop of dishevelled ginger hair, his Irish guests preen and pose their way through the deathly dull ‘All I Want’. At least Glenn Hansard is more on his wavelength, although we could have done without the pub singalong of ‘The Auld Triangle’ and ‘Molly Malone’ – especially when Friday night had seen more restrained readings of ‘Raglan Road’ and ‘The Parting Glass’.
The encore is a swift, stops pulling blast through ‘I Need You, You Don’t Need Me’ and ‘Sing’ that sees the stadium finally explode into life, but – like so many moments in the music industry – just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. For all his “isn’t this amazing” chat, you suspect that Ed Sheeran was just as happy playing in Whelans during the week, or at his two unannounced slots (including Other Voices) at Latitude Festival the weekend before. It’s part of what makes him such an intriguing artist, hats and flags or no hats and flags. With his own label on the way and creative freedom surely on the table, he could well have his cake and eat it.