Review: Ed Sheeran plays to thousands, and makes it feel personal

Ed Sheeran came onstage armed only with a microphone, guitar and foot loop pedal, sporting a black T-shirt depicting late Pittsburgh-born rapper Mac Miller, and quickly turned a breezy night at PNC Park into a casual hangout with a few thousand of his closest friends.

Sheeran may seem like an unlikely pop star, but his personable demeanor and the intimacy of his performance shined Saturday night.

“This is the biggest show I’ve ever played in Pittsburgh,” 27-year-old Sheeran said to a nearly full stadium. “Ten years ago I was playing these same songs in pubs with people pretending to listen.”

Things are very different now—since 2011, he’s released three albums, had six top-10 hits in the U.S. and has won countless awards. He returned to Pittsburgh for the second consecutive September with a show perfectly refined to please a crowd.

Between the ballads and upbeat guitar pop songs that made him famous, Sheeran joked easily and shared personal anecdotes with the crowd. His stripped-down orchestrations made the performance even more personal but also gave the artist an opportunity to showcase his musical and vocal skills.

It’s clear that the already year-and-a-half-long tour in support of his third album “Divide” is a labor of love. Sheeran loves what he does, and he implored the crowd to share in that. Bringing surprising energy to the stage, he encouraged fans to dance and sing. “Your job, on a Saturday night, is to lose your voice tonight … the best thing is when you leave a concert and have no voice left,” he told them.

Love was what brought many concert-goers to the show. Margaret and Jeff, a married couple, drove from Baltimore to celebrate their five-year anniversary. “If I had known about him at the time, he definitely would have written our first dance song,” Margaret said.

The show attracted a diverse set of attendees, from babies to baby boomers, a fact that Sheeran noted.

“When I started touring in America, it was sort of one age group, and now it’s every age group, from really, really old to really, really young, enjoying the same songs,” he said.

And while the crowd skewed female—enough to make the line for the ladies’ room feel like standing in Times Square—there were a number of men in attendance.

Sheeran had a theory about this, giving shout-outs to the “boyfriends who don’t really want to be here” and the “superdads” who are there to watch out for their kids. “You’re giving up a night of your time to do something for someone you love,” he said, following it up with a promise to try to win over male attendees with his music.

It’s easy to imagine the music finally winning them over. From the night’s first song, the soaring, nostalgic “Castle on the Hill,” the crowd was hooked. The set, which mostly alternated upbeat numbers and slower ballads, kept attendees hooked and momentum high until the end of the nearly two-hour show.

Songs like “Don’t” and “Galway Girl” found the audience clapping and singing along, but the cell phone lights—the 21st century equivalent of lighters—came out for slow numbers like “Dive.”

The tour may be in support of “Divide” but casual fans wouldn’t have been disappointed by the mix of Sheeran’s biggest hits that made up the set list. “People want to hear the hit songs,” Sheeran acknowledged. Before playing his 2014 mega-hit “Thinking Out Loud,” Sheeran joked that “if you don’t know this one, you’re at the wrong concert.”

Tens of thousands of voices nearly drowned out Sheeran himself during “Thinking Out Loud.” But many hardcore fans also made their voices heard during lesser-known tunes like “Photograph” and “Tenerife Sea.” Even non-fans had something familiar in his rendition of the Nina Simone classic “Feeling Good.”

Sheeran paints a striking picture as a solo act onstage, remaining mostly stationary as he deftly worked the guitar and loop pedal that made up his sole accompaniment. With enough personality to fill the space, he doesn’t need a supporting cast of musicians. He’s a soulful singer, earnestly closing his eyes as he crooned out choruses. This wasn’t a concert in need of excess ornamentation—there were no costume changes and no pyrotechnics.

That doesn’t mean the show wasn’t visually engaging. PNC Park provided the perfect atmosphere to complement Sheeran’s chilled-out vibe, and the backdrop of the city’s skyline added an extra dimension to the evening’s mood lighting. The stage was lit in a variety of ways throughout the night, bringing up bright patterns and sweeping spotlights for some songs and dropping down to be more intimate for others. During the pounding intensity of the verses of “Eraser,” the lights made stabs of red over the stage, cooling down to a chilly blue-white during Sheeran’s first hit, “The A-Team.”

This worked in conjunction with Instagram-worthy visuals on the half-dozen big screens that framed the stage. The screens focused closely on Sheeran but also showed images that related closely to his songs. While he played “Photograph,” a sentimental song about remembering those that you love, photographs of a younger Sheeran played across the screens. At various times, Sheeran’s profile onscreen was rendered with effects from black-and-white-and-sepia tones to psychedelic colors.

The audience never tired, especially once Sheeran hit his crescendo, ending the regular set with his first-album hit “Sing” and returning to the stage for his encore with the biggest pop song of 2017, “Shape Of You.” The night was capped off with an intense, energetic performance of early single “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” The last thing he said before leaving the stage was “Rest in peace, Mac Miller.”

Hopefully, Pittsburgh has proved welcoming enough that Sheeran will come back soon. If the love fans showed him Saturday night is any indication, there’s no reason to worry.

Alexis Papalia is a contributing writer for the Tribune-Review.