Saturday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, Ed Sheeran did something he’s never done before at a local concert. He rocked.
By that, I mean he played some rock songs with a full rock band, which is new territory for the 32-year-old Brit, who has spent the past dozen years scoring a seemingly never-ending series of worldwide hits and performing them live for increasingly larger crowds.
Speaking of, Sheeran set a new attendance record for a concert at USBS and packed 72,102 folks into the place. He performed on an in-the-round stage, allowing the venue to sell seats around the entire bowl. (Previous record-holder Garth Brooks also played on a considerably smaller in-the-round stage but had seats on the floor. It was general admission for Sheeran.)
Sheeran built his empire on his own back and typically performs solo, using pedals to loop vocal tics and guitar riffs and create an electronically aided bed of sound. It’s a cool trick that gets tiresome when employed for an entire two-hour show. Indeed, Sheeran’s previous USBS show in October 2018 got downright boring at times, particularly since Sheeran has just two kinds of songs, tender ballads and fired-up acoustic pop songs.
Saturday, he opened with “Tides,” the first track on his fifth album “=,” backed by the aforementioned live band. (The tour supports that record and its recent follow-up “-.”) It was startling, and kind of thrilling, to hear Sheeran in a new context. He followed it up with a real rocker of a song, “Blow,” his 2019 collaboration with Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars. With its awkward gun/sex innuendo like “Pull my trigger, let me blow your mind” it’s not his best work but, again, at least he was trying something fresh on stage.
Alas, for the third number of the night, “I’m a Mess,” it was back to business as usual with Ed, his guitar and pedals. His stage helped keep things visually interesting, even if it was pretty garish. It featured a circular stage with a rotating track on the edge, like the spinning restaurant at the top of the Radisson in Duluth. Six large kabob-like pillars surrounded the stage, each with a giant guitar pick-shaped screen.
Sheeran worked every inch of the stage and played songs from throughout his career, including his breakthrough hit “The A Team,” “Castle on the Hill,” “Thinking Out Loud,” “Photograph and “Shape of You.” The band, with each member stationed at the foot of a kabob, returned several times, including for a run of tracks from 2019’s “No.6 Collaborations Project,” an album Sheeran said he never thought he’d perform live.
It’ll be interesting to see where Sheeran goes from here. He made several references to his “Mathematical” series now being complete (five of his six albums are named after mathematical symbols). In addition to his current stadium tour, he’s also playing some small theater shows devoted to “-,” a collection of darker songs he wrote and recorded with the National’s Aaron Dessner, the guy who helped Taylor Swift create her pandemic records “Folklore” and “Evermore.”
Sheeran played one of those shows at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis Friday night and told the crowd he has finished his contract with Atlantic and plans to self-release a new album this fall. Personally, I just hope he continues to occasionally mix it up with other live musicians on stage.