When Clash steps off the train in central Cardiff, the city is already teeming with activity. Amid the Friday lunchtime sun the streets are thronged with people, crowds attaching themselves to bars, crowds spilling out into the street. Ed Sheeran has that impact on a city; the songwriter announced, and promptly sold out, four nights at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, an enormous sporting theatre more used to record-breaking rugby showdowns than loop pedal permutations.
The carnival atmosphere extends throughout the day. Huge tailbacks on the M4 emphasis the impact Ed Sheeran has – one of the few musicians of his era to genuinely work on a global, nigh-on universal scale, at points it feels as though half the country is attempting to make its way to the centre of Cardiff.
Arriving at Principality Stadium, you’re struck by just how vast Ed Sheeran’s achievements – taken on a purely commercial level – actually are. The stadium itself is physically imposing, and the set structure – he’ll be playing in the round tonight, both inventive in its own right while doubling as a way of ramping up the attendance still further – is ambitious.
And then the man himself. Opening with a trio of ‘Tides’, ‘Blow’, and ‘I’m A Mess’, Ed Sheeran beams with energy. The second night of his Cardiff run, the nervous energy of the opener has given way to a curious confidence, and he looks comfortable in his own skin. The highlights illustrate just how far his catalogue has permeated into culture – a brisk ‘Castle On The Hill’, a potent ‘2step’, and a succinct ‘Visiting Hours’ are all greeted by a mass of limbs, and wave upon wave of cheers.
People-watching reveals the enormously disparate nature of his crowd. There are teens, eager to here the hits; couples, who perhaps had the first dance at their wedding soundtracked by his heart-on-sleeve balladry; and entire families, Ed’s music becoming the glue that keeps those relationships together. There are hen parties galore tonight, the pink cowgirl hats glistening in the late evening sun; at one point Clash catches sight of a pair of crutches being held aloft – severe injury isn’t keeping fans away from this record-breaking show.
He’s admirably humble through it all. The circular stage revolves like a record player, and Ed Sheeran reflects on his early shows in Cardiff, sometimes dropping past fans’ front rooms to play to 20, 30 people they’d invited through MySpace. He’s someone who is keenly aware of his journey – in the hands of almost anyone else it could be mawkish, but Ed Sheeran’s total, complete sincerity, and almost child-like enthusiasm cuts straight through.
The songs, of course, come from a similar psychological space. ‘Galway Girl’ is almost universally dismissed by snobbish critics, but here it’s received rapturously, the entire 60,000 (plus!) crowd rising to their feet. Re-capturing ‘Love Yourself’ from Justin Bieber, he then moves into a bejewelled ‘Sing’ and a pitch-perfect ‘Photograph’.
Closing with ‘Afterglow’, the affable Suffolk artist ups the ante with the encore; colossal unit-shifting mega-banger ‘Shape Of You’ is radiant in the May twilight, while ‘Bad Habits’ is allowed to steer into the ‘Smalltown Boy’ elements that permeate its DNA. Closing with a helter-skelter ‘You Need Me’, it’s a breathless performance from the ginger maestro. It’s not without fall – Ed Sheeran switches between solo and group performances, and this isn’t always smooth. Equally, the ebb and flow of the set stacked some of his most universally loved songs towards the end – notably that explosive encore. Yet these criticisms feel churlish next to the site of a stadium crammed with people having the time of their lives. The Ed Sheeran phenomenon rolls on – an incongruous and unlikely record-breaker, the defining chart-buster of our times is impossible to dislike.
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Words: Robin Murray
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