At the biggest show Wales has ever seen, Ed Sheeran delivers an invigorating but uneven set that is free from surprises – or risk. We know it’s Wales’s biggest show ever because he mentions it, twice. The singer-songwriter is fond of numbers. Less fond of his band, it seems, who are allowed to come out for approximately four songs during the two-hour set at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. But hey, Sheeran has loop pedals. He’s basically a band on his own.
This hits-loaded performance is a positive switch-up from the 31-year-old’s irritatingly basic Glastonbury headliner in 2017. He comes out swinging – from a rotating, circular stage in the centre of the stadium – with “Tides”, the anthemic opener from last year’s album = (Equals). “Blow”, his (teeth) grinding number with Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars, feels like an odd choice to follow, setting the crowd up for a big, Springsteen-level rock show. But from there Sheeran guides us into an evening of his most uplifting pop songs and wedding-friendly ballads.
Given most fans here must surely know Sheeran’s story – that he started out sofa-surfing and playing tiny gigs around the UK – it’s a touch odd that he brings it up so often. What’s impressive is to hear how many of those songs still sound fresh. Debut single “A Team”, with its tender guitar strumming and frank yet evocative lyrics, is as affecting as ever. It’s amusing when he introduces “Give Me Love” as one his audience might not know (well sure, it only has half a billion streams). But the rendition itself is gorgeous, building steadily over layered vocal harmonies into a rousing cri de coeur.
Some songs, such as “Shape of You”, feel oddly rushed: at one point, Sheeran actually seems to stumble over the sped-up tempo. When he interpolates “Don’t” with “No Diggity”, it’s as if he’s deliberately referencing his recent plagiarism trial, during which he sang the Blackstreet track to demonstrate how countless songs have fundamental similarities. There are plenty of nods to other artists during the set: “Sing” has Pharrell’s Latin-style guitar punch, while recent single “Bad Habits” races along a Bronski Beat-indebted synth line.
As he returns for an encore, I wonder if the reason Sheeran feels compelled to rattle out all those stats to his fans is that he still doesn’t believe in his own success. That would explain why the live show feels like as much of an exercise in box-ticking as some of his albums: he’s so keen to make sure everyone’s having a good time, he forgets to enjoy it himself. But then there are rare moments – like his barn-storming “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” – where he really does look like he’s having a blast. And those earlier songs are the best reminder of why Sheeran is in stadiums, now, not on sofas.