Ed Sheeran has studied at the Conan O’Brien school of self-denigration. For a multiplatinum, Grammy-nominated singer headlining a mostly sold-out world tour, he still writes lyrics filled with a healthy amount of doubt. “I’m a singer you don’t want to see shirtless,” he sang on “Take It Back” last night in Queens, New York. But like most of his more pessimistic lines, this self-conscious jab was met with deafening screams from a packed audience at Forest Hills Stadium.
The British singer set the tone early, opening with “I’m a Mess,” the first of many incisive but catchy tales of heartbreak. In the background, 14 rectangular video screens projected graphics, music videos or footage of Sheeran. “Lego House” was accompanied by animated blocks, and the romantic “Photograph” featured a beautiful cartoon of a couple dancing that transformed from a static line drawing to geometric watercolors that looked something like the Hedwig and the Angry Inch illustrations.
Since releasing his first album in 2011, Sheeran has helped inspire a new crop of young, male pop musicians to step out, guitar in hand. On paper, he seems like just a watered-down version of the Paul Simons and James Taylors of the past, but in concert, he thrives, owning the stage with just his instrument, his voice and a loop pedal. And when’s the last time you saw James Taylor cover Blackstreet?
Sheeran, who refers to himself as a “singer with a flow,” used the live setting to further show off his hip-hop skills. Early, he mashed up “No Diggity,” Chris Brown’s “Loyal” and his own songs “Don’t” and “Nina.” During the encore, he combined hometown hero 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” with “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” Here it seemed like he was trying a little too hard: His smooth takes on soulful R&B classics like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” were a better measure of his abilities as both a singer and musician.
Although the singer performed alone, his foot pedal allowed him to loop his voice and guitar to an impressive effect, filling the open-air venue with layer upon layer of sound. The fans seemed awe-stricken by how skillfully he approximated the vibe of a full band; sometimes, their own singing provided the songs’ harmonies.
Halfway through his set, the looping heated up to Sheeran’s single “Bloodstream.” As the sky began to darken, Sheeran pounded his way through the dynamic track, vigorously strumming and passionately howling out, “Tell me when it kicks in!” The stadium (which hosted at least two marriage proposals) cheered louder and louder until instructed to move their arms as “the beat dropped” during the chorus. The same went for the pre-encore “finale” “Give Me Love”: Sheeran proved to be at his best when dramatizing a song’s build-up with only his guitar, voice and pedal. When the moment was right, he would strip it all away, and the song would return to just him and his strumming. It felt like magic.
After the G-Unit encore, Sheeran ended his time onstage by deferring back to the fans. He played “Sing” and displayed their images on the 14 screens, and even as he left, they dutifully repeated the vocal harmonies for him.