"My name is Ed, my job is to entertain you, your job is to be entertained," Ed Sheeran told a sold-out crowd last night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. With tousled ginger hair, black jeans and an unbuttoned plaid shirt, Sheeran looked more like the roadie checking the microphone for sibilance than the star of the show. At times, he performed as if he were busking in a subway station, but this was busking of the highest order: the type of set that would make you miss your train and drop some bills into the guitar case.
It's no small thing to hold the attention of 20,000 people for an hour-and-three-quarters all by yourself – when major stars decide to do an acoustic tour, they usually opt for the safer environment of theaters, even if they could sell out arenas. But Sheeran, a 23-year-old Brit, is pulling off this American arena tour with some well-rehearsed patter ("If you know the words, sing it – if you don't, make it up, and make sure it's loud as hell") and an array of looping pedals, which allow him to stack vocals, guitar riffs and percussive noises. Normally, he was content with an extra loop or two, but on a few songs, such as "Bloodstream," Sheeran kept adding layer after layer until his acoustic guitar became a wailing wall of white noise.
Unlike most singer-songwriters in troubadour mode, Sheeran doesn't want to show off the cleverness of his songwriting. He eschews literary flourishes and unexpected turns of phrase in favor of direct lyrics such as "I just want to hold you" and "we found love right where we are." Several songs last night, however, showcased his rapping, and that was where Sheeran cut loose verbally, spouting autobiography, spitting out triple-time couplets, and rhyming "celibate" with "hell of it." Incongruous but invigorating, those hip-hop interludes made it clear that Sheeran's usual songwriting isn't based on a limited vocabulary – he's making the deliberate (and lucrative) choice to be emotionally blunt.
Sheeran played 17 songs (including his Hobbit soundtrack contribution "I See Fire," with images of Smaug on the video screens) and interpolated a couple of entertaining covers, working Blackstreet's "No Diggity" into his own "Don't" and concluding his "Runaway" by declaiming a chunk of the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." So when he announced during the encore that he was going to play a song that he considered one of the top 10 compositions of all time, almost anything seemed possible: "Waterfalls"? "The Immigrant Song"? Somewhat anticlimactically, it was Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" – but the reason for the selection became clear when Sheeran was joined for a duet by Snow Patrol's lanky singer, Gary Lightbody.
The crowd (mostly young and female) responded to Sheeran's every command, pulling out their cell phones by the thousand to provide a twinkling backdrop or shushing their loud neighbors when he asked for quiet during "Afire Love." When a few audience members kept shouting during that song's introduction, the genial Sheeran had a rare moment where he showed his teeth: He stopped the song and said, "I have love for you, not just at this very moment." He may have a relaxed attitude and facial hair that looks like a high school senior's first attempt at growing a beard, but Sheeran has the inner steel of a show business professional.